PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- It's a deadly game that needs to stop.
Those were the words straight the mouth of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri after a group of young teens crashed a stolen vehicle early Sunday.
Six teens had been "running in tandem" since stealing a Ford Explorer and a Chrysler Sebring on Aug. 3 from a Clearwater car lot, Gualtieri said, referring to the teens involved as "prolific offenders."
The joyride came to a deadly end around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 6, near U.S. 19 and Tampa Road. Three teens were killed and another was hurt.
"I can’t stress this enough, this is a sad and terrible situation, and somehow it’s got to stop," Gualtieri said during a Sunday morning press conference, referring to the troubling trend the sheriff's office has seen escalate within the past 18 months: teens stealing cars.
"I can tell you that law enforcement in this county is doing everything we can possibly do to curb this behavior.”
Efforts to curb the behavior include the county's Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement, or HOME unit, which puts teens with at least five felony arrests who are on probation under intense officer surveillance.
Sheriff Gualtieri said the teens involved in Sunday's crash were already being monitored under that particular program.
"This scenario plays out daily throughout Pinellas County," he said. "The only difference from what didn’t happen yesterday and the day before that is they didn’t roll, hit a car, and get killed."
Our coverage partners at the Tampa Bay Times found that 499 juveniles were arrested for auto thefts in Pinellas County in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Looking back over eight years of records, the Tampa Bay Times found that to be the highest number of juvenile auto theft arrests out of every county in Florida. The number of juvenile auto arrests in Pinellas County also topped the number of similar juvenile arrests in the most populous counties in the U.S., including Los Angeles, according to the Times.
In March 2016, three teen girls with a history of auto thefts were killed when deputies say they crashed a stolen car into a pond in St. Petersburg while trying to get away.
Local departments, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, have launched auto theft task forces to crack down on cases, while law enforcement also calls on parents to step up.
"When you have 14, 15, 16-year-old that are dying because of their actions it needs to stop," Gualtieri said.
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