National News

Hot Wheels: Trying to turn around juvenile car thieves, one case at a time

Posted January 1, 2018 11:56 p.m. EST


They knew something had gone wrong, but they weren't sure what, climbing back into the car outside the courthouse. The kid had his phone pressed to his ear; he was trying to reach his probation officer. It rang and rang but she didn't pick up.

She had told him he had court that morning, he said, but when they asked the clerk, nothing was scheduled. The kid hung up and dialed again. Adam turned the key in the ignition, shaking his head.

"Isn't she the one who usually takes you to court?" he asked. "She doesn't work today. No wonder she's not picking up."

This was the whole reason Adam Sheppard was here, driving a 16-year-old boy he'd only met a few weeks ago to and from the courthouse: If Adam didn't, no one else would. His parents weren't in the picture. His grandmother didn't own a car, declined to take the bus. The kid didn't have cab money.

So Adam turned onto Ulmerton Road, steering back to the St. Petersburg shelter where the boy lived.

For the first time, the county's mental health agency is working with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to address the underlying problems that lead teens to commit crimes. The pilot program in Pinellas Park comes in the wake of "Hot Wheels," a Tampa Bay Times series documenting a dangerous juvenile auto theft epidemic in Pinellas County.

Adam is a social worker with Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, or PEMHS. The first "navigator" for the pilot, he's holding together an experiment that local officials hope will save lives and make the area safer.

For this program to work, Adam will have to tackle so much more than rides to court -- issues of abuse, unemployment, drugs, homelessness -- the spiraling problems of poverty that loom so large and leak everywhere until they feel undefeatable.

But if things are ever going to get better, he's got to try.

"What if they say I wasn't in court?" the boy asked him, bending his stick-like arms to smooth his hair.

"Trust me, it won't happen. You won't get in trouble," Adam promised. He looked over at the kid, for just a second, then pulled onto the highway. "I'll call the judge myself, if I have to."

• • •

When Adam first met the kid in the passenger seat, he was living in a trailer overrun with roaches and fleas, the toilet filthy and broken. Opossums and raccoons came up through holes in the floor, which the boy covered with a suitcase.

The owner knocked the trailer down before Adam could get a voucher to move the teen and grandma somewhere else. It was the day before Hurricane Irma hit. Adam scrambled to get them into a shelter.

He was telling this to officers sitting around a room on a Thursday afternoon in early November. He met every two weeks with officers from the Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement unit, or HOME, sharing updates in a small, windowless room behind the jail visitation center.

The family had been in the shelter for two months now and he wanted to find an apartment for them, but it was hard, Adam told the officers. He was eyeing a possibility in Largo, but it was $700 a month, a lot more than the trailer. "They'll get out of the shelter in the next month or so," Adam said. He needed to figure something out, soon.

The Sheriff's Office started HOME back in May 2016 to try to keep kids convicted of auto theft and other felonies from getting into more trouble. The court was releasing them home on probation, but with hardly anyone checking on the teenagers, they were breaking curfew and committing more crimes. Even if they left their home just to hang out with friends, they could get hit with violating probation, a misdemeanor that sank them deeper into the criminal system.

But when HOME officers began checking to make sure the kids were obeying curfew, they were finding other issues in these households: filthy living conditions, young children left unsupervised, and more. The sheriff approached PEMHS about a partnership with their team of "navigators" who helped families get social services. Typical navigation cases were closed within a month: They covered an electric bill, bought a shopping cart of groceries for a family, or connected them with bus passes and moved on.

But in this new partnership, orbiting the lives of juvenile criminals and the homes they hail from, PEMHS is looking at a window of three to six months.

"These are deplorable situations," said Courtney Covington, coordinator of community and family services for PEMHS. "This isn't the same as you hit a bump in the road."

PEMHS doesn't typically agree to interviews with journalists, but its administrators granted access in light of the Times' auto theft series. Analyzing 18 months of juvenile grand theft auto arrests, reporters found that the most chronic car thieves led the least stable lives.

For this story, reporters agreed not to name any teens or their family members, nor show their faces in photographs, in accordance with PEMHS' wishes and health privacy laws.

Adam had seven open cases when he met with the HOME officers that Thursday. They had referred 15 families to him, but not everyone wanted assistance. They saw Adam as another set of eyes talking to the cops.

But others welcomed the help, like the mother who would call him nearly every day to talk for half an hour. Of the seven families, there was one dad in the picture and one boyfriend. "Otherwise, it's just moms and grandmas," Adam said.

The one who called every day was a widow. She had called the day before, needing help with a water bill. Her son was getting off his electronic monitor soon, and she was worried he'd start riding in stolen cars again. Adam had already driven the boy around town to fill out job applications. He had also ordered the boy a basketball.

"Whenever it gets here, I'll come drop it off, hang out with him for a minute," he said.

Adam, 29, had worked in a boys' group home before coming to PEMHS; he felt like he did his best when he could connect with the kids' interests, motivations. With some of them, he compared movies and shows in their Netflix queues and preached getting a girlfriend to keep them out of trouble.

Now Adam told the officers he had gotten the boy coming off an ankle monitor an interview at Winn-Dixie. He felt like he was getting somewhere.

• • •

The U-Haul beep-beep-beeped, backing into the narrow strip between apartments. It was Nov. 17, and unseasonably warm. Adam undid the latch and pulled the tab to open the truck, revealing a mess of box springs, dining chairs, a microwave and ironing board.

A volunteer handed him pieces of a wheeled bed frame.

"I'll take as many as I can," Adam told him.

"Don't try to take too many!" another volunteer shouted, as Adam climbed down from inside the truck.

He had found a place for the kid and the grandmother, the ones living in a shelter after their trailer was knocked down. It was a two-bedroom apartment, part of a complex of six or so units off a small street in Largo.

He had talked Wellness Ministries into donating the furniture and the truck to deliver it. He had secured the move-in deposit and first month's electric through Family Advocacy Program, a government funding source. It would pay the first two months' rent, and part of the next four months, helping the family to be fully independent after six.

The apartment was small, with rusty wall-unit air conditioners. When Adam had taken the family to see it the week before, the landlord had apologized: "I know it isn't much." But the 16-year-old and his grandma had thought it was amazing, Adam remembered. "Trust me, they're going to love it," he said.

He carried inside a wooden end table, catching a drawer as it started to fall out. He lay down a blue, green and yellow area rug. A Boy Scout troop had donated toiletry bags they'd assembled themselves -- Q-tips, toothbrushes, soap and granola bars.

"How old did you say he was?" the woman with Wellness Ministries asked Adam. "You said he's 16, but he looks 11?" She had brought a camo backpack and a sleeping bag. "In case he doesn't like sleeping in someone else's sheets."

"We're getting there," Adam said, looking at it all.

Piece by piece, they filled the apartment with the second-hand items of a fresh start: A twin mattress patterned with fading yellow flowers. Mini-muffin tins and a 48-piece utensil set. A nine-pack of Angel Soft toilet paper. Stained toilet brushes. A wall calendar, each month illustrated with a Norman Rockwell painting.

The last thing they did was squeeze a couch through the door, unscrewing the legs and angling it until it fit.

• • •

The kid first showed up in police reports when he was less than 7 weeks old, his parents screaming so loud in their Oldsmar apartment that someone dialed 911.

When he was 4 months old, his dad went to prison for drugs. He was 3 when his uncle overdosed on Christmas night, his grandma tucking the syringe, spoon and shoestring in a plastic bag so the toddler wouldn't play with them.

"The apartment appeared in disarray," police noted. "There were pants left on the stove with food remnants in them. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the kitchen appeared to have a cockroach infestation."

A few months later, his mother was arrested for drunken driving after she crashed on the railroad tracks in Safety Harbor. She said she was on her way to pick up her son.

Later that year, child abuse investigators asked him about the broken blood vessels in the corner of his left eye. A small part of the eye was hemorrhaging. He had scratches on his face. His uncle had hit him with a light-up Spider-Man sneaker, he said.

By 11, he was living in the trailer park, witnessing kids throwing rocks and threatening each other with knives. His mother's boyfriend dumped a beer on her head during a fight; some of it splattered onto the boy. It was Christmas. He drove his bicycle around the trailer park with bruises on his face. He told police he got in a fight over a girl. A few weeks later he was arrested for throwing bleach on a neighbor.

The next month a Hyundai Elantra stolen from an 83-year-old woman crashed into a ditch by Sawgrass Lake Park. When they found the kid he was shirtless, sweaty, 14 and out of breath. His friends were yelling at him: "We shouldn't have let you drive." Police also found his prints on a rummaged-through BMW, Ford Taurus and Toyota Corolla.

He was released on an ankle monitor and got six months probation. HOME officers checked on him, selected him as "as a juvenile offender in need of intensive supervision." Some weeks they checked on him every other night.

He turned 15. He was accused of letting off a fire extinguisher in the trailer park pool. He was accused of making prank calls to 911. He watched his uncle hold a knife to his own throat, screaming he wanted to kill himself. He caught probation violations and failures to appear, when he didn't report to court. Another ankle monitor went on and came off.

Had there ever been a stable home? A place where someone baked mini-muffins and hung Norman Rockwell on the wall?

• • •

There were clothes scattered around the new apartment, falling off the ironing board and piled on the floor. "I need hangers," said the grandma, blue-eyed and standing in the kitchen.

"We can help with that," he said. "The hangers are easy. It's the big things I'm worried about."

Adam spread papers he had brought across the counter, pushing aside a book of puzzles open to a page that said "Hedgehogs." He had sent for the grandmother's birth certificate in New York, trying to get her an ID card. He had reapplied for the family to get cash assistance, canceled when they moved into the shelter. He had reapplied for them to get food stamps.

"The goal here is for you to save," he explained to the grandmother, showing her the papers from the government program.

She would need a way to pay the entire $700 monthly rent when the assistance went away. Adam signed them up for discounted bus passes.

"I don't like buses," the kid said.

"Yeah," Adam said, "but it's called becoming an adult."

There was another form, for the kid to sign up for an adult education center. Adam couldn't usually get money approved to pay for school, he said, but he was going to pull some strings and try to get the $30 necessary for the 16-year-old to start classes.

"We have a lot to work on," he said. "This is just the beginning."

That's when a small boy he didn't recognize opened the apartment door, walked through the kitchen, and sat on the brown couch Adam had carried in just weeks ago.

"Who's staying here?" Adam asked the 16-year-old.

A woman whom they'd met at the shelter had started dropping her children off during the day while she went to work. She left no food or money for the two kids, so they had been eating the family's food, the bread and eggs and Hawaiian Punch Adam had bought for them at Walmart. This had been going on for two weeks.

"Why did you wait until now to tell me about this?" Adam asked the grandmother. "Because I haven't had time to talk to you," she said.

"That has to stop. You can't afford it," Adam told her.

She shrugged, said, "Yeah."

"Can you come outside with me?" Adam asked the 16-year-old. He leaned against a pole. Adam was sweating, shaking his head. "Let me think," he said.

He had a new family in his caseload, a 14-year-old who had crashed a stolen car into a tree and put his friend riding with him on life support. He had just found out the boy's girlfriend was 17 and pregnant with his child.

Then there was the boy he had gotten an interview at Winn-Dixie, the one whose mother often reached out for help. She had called again recently, saying her son woke up complaining his leg hurt. As she took him to the hospital, she told Adam, the boy admitted he had snuck out and been involved in a stolen car wreck.

Now, Adam stood outside the new apartment he had found for the 16-year-old and his grandmother, asking the boy to promise he'd take care of this. "This is messed up. Your grandma has a hard time saying no. This isn't your brother, this isn't her grandson," Adam told the kid. "He can't stay here. He can't eat your food. You can't have another kid living here."

The kid stuck his hands in his pockets. Adam was staring at him, trying to make this stick.

"The budget stuff is important, because in six months I'm not going to be here," Adam said. "You're going to get evicted. And you can't go back to St. Vincent's. You won't have anywhere to go."

The kid nodded, said he understood. "I'm going to call you tomorrow," Adam said.

He climbed into his Toyota Camry and started the drive back to PEMHS. He had a lot of paperwork to do. He thought about the kid, about what it would take to get him back in school. He couldn't imagine him having a fulfilling life without a GED. He couldn't picture him at 20.

The plan was to close the case within six months. Now it had been four. "I don't know what the plan is now," Adam said, driving through Largo. "We're winging it."

He said again, this time to himself, "I can't be around forever." But he was here now, so he did the only thing he could do:

Keep trying.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow