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Tip Helps Police Nab Suspected Car Thief

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DURHAM — It wasn't long after the face of a suspected car thief hit the air waves Tuesday, that a CrimeStoppers tip led police to their man. After a few leads, a Wednesday morning caller lead officers to a home on Glenn Road.

One police officer said the suspect looks like the boy next door. The same officer also said the suspect wouldn't make a very good neighbor.

Seventeen-year-old Tony Merritt allegedly covered six counties and three cities during his crime spree. Officers say Merritt took off with more than just cars. They now have reason to believe he also targeted homes.

With the arrest, Durham police say they've solved one of the worst one-man crime sprees that they've ever encountered. The list of stolen items include credit cards, wallets and cell phones.

"Two investigators went over there [to Glenn Road], and talked with his sister. And he came out with no problem, with no incident," said Durham Police Sgt. Robin Lane.

Some officers in Durham say they could have arrested Merritt days ago if their chase policy was not so restrictive. They said that they spotted Merritt several times, but could not chase after him.

"When we put the blue lights and siren on, he ran and he doesn't meet the criteria to chase him, so we couldn't chase him and had to let him go," Lane said. "I'd like to see a review, and look into [the policy]."

The policy forbids high speed police pursuits, unless the suspect poses a danger to the community. At least one officer is asking for a review of department policy.

Police Chief Teresa Chambers says she understands the officers' frustration, but the policy works from a public safety standpoint. She explained some of the precautions the officers have to consider.

"Is it worth the risk of going at high speeds, going through intersections, what time of day it is, are school children getting out, what are the intersections like, is there construction nearby? When we can say that the risk of letting the suspect leave is greater than the risk we pose by a chase, then yes, we're going to pursue," Chambers said.

Chatham County and Creedmoor joined the growing list of places where police say one young man relieved people of property, money and transportation.

"We can connect him to probably a couple dozen combinations between cars that have been stolen and cars that have been broken into," Lane said. "At this time we have seven warrants here on him, and there are pending charges on another dozen or more from other counties. Right now, I know there are at least five agencies [as of Tuesday] that have cases they are looking to him on."

Police believe Merritt was on a stealing spree to support a crack habit that has gone out of control. They think he has stolen in Durham, Chapel Hill, Wake County, Durham County, Orange County, Guilford County, Granville County and now, Chatham County.

The suspect even stole credit cards from the personal cars of two Durham Police officers.

"My concern is that he's gone from someone who breaks in cars... and running from the police in cars," Lane said. "There are some house break-ins that we are looking into. Someone at this age without any legitimate driving experience, running from the police in stolen cars is definitely of concern."

At this point, officers say Merritt faces dozens of charges. As far as Merritt having any help in his crime spree, investigators believe Merritt was in charge of actually executing the thefts. They believe he did have some help in planning the crimes. OnLine Producers:Kerrie HudzinskiandJason Darwin

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Mark Roberts, Reporter
Edward Wilson, Photographer

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