WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - It was a situation all too familiar to Tampa Bay law enforcement, one that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is tired of seeing: Teenagers stealing cars.
This time it was a carjacking out of Osceola County. Authorities chased the vehicle through Polk County, then into Tampa before concluding back in Polk County.
"I have the ages of three of the five (suspects) and they're all juveniles with no respect for the law and no respect for the criminal justice system," Judd said.
One of the suspects, a 15-year-old from Winter Haven, appeared in court just hours before Friday's pursuit.
It started early Friday morning when five suspects carjacked a delivery person in Celebration.
Two suspects were later captured in Winter Haven. The other three traveled into Tampa.
State troopers requested Tampa police to stop the vehicle on I-275 Southbound. The vehicle didn't stop, leading officers to pursue the vehicle.
The vehicle exited the interstate at the Howard/Armenia avenues exit and traveled on several streets before re-entering the highway headed north, Tampa police said.
"The pursuit by Tampa Police officers was discontinued when TPD Air Service began following the suspect's car from the air," police said. "At that point, TPD vehicles were able to turn off emergency equipment and follow from a safe distance. Before that, a southbound TPD vehicle struck a guardrail
on I-275 just south of downtown Tampa. The officer received minor injuries."
The suspect vehicle exited I-4 East, running out of gas in the area of Drane Field Road and Pipkin Road in Lakeland, the Polk County Sheriff's Office said.
Three suspects exited the vehicle. Two, ages 16 and 17, were caught a short time later near the Citco Gas Station at 1950 Drane Field Rd.
"(The 15-year-old) though, continued on, and ran into an occupied garage, where he was said to have offered money to someone there to hide him, but was refused," the sheriff's office said. "He continued running, until he found a City of Lakeland truck, and stole that."
A deputy spotted the truck on Polk Parkway and followed it into Winter Haven, where he then performed a 'PIT-maneuver' to stop the vehicle at Avenue T NE and Eighth Street NE.
The teenager then ran into an occupied home, where he later came out without incident.
He faces charges for unarmed burglary of an occupied residence, unarmed burglary of an occupied structure, grand theft of a motor vehicle, grand theft and violation of probation. His criminal history includes seven prior arrests for grand theft of a motor vehicle, burglary of a dwelling (2), dealing in stolen property, fleeing to elude, burglary of conveyance (4), resisting, criminal mischief, fraud (7) and petty theft.
"You can't hug a thug," Judd said following the chase. "I think they're gonna hate. And that's what they were doing. (The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice) were hugging a thug. These are criminal kids, not juveniles making a mistake. They are criminal kids not being held accountable."
Judd mentioned Hillsborough and Pinellas counties as examples of areas where youth crime has been well documented.
"In Pinellas County, a lot of kids die," said Judd, presumably referring to instances where teens have died while stealing vehicles. "If they were in a program with DJJ they wouldn't be dead. The bottom line is this, we've got two choices. Either hold them accountable or we can let them run through the neighborhoods and commit carjackings, home occupied invasions and put people's lives at risk."
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