CLEARWATER – Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter told city council members about the deaths of three area teenagers when a stolen vehicle they were traveling in crashed in Palm Harbor is reflective of a growing trend in the county that will continue to see deadly results.
During a workshop of the Clearwater City Council on Aug. 14, Councilman Bill Jonson asked Slaughter to update city leaders about the incident, as well as efforts to combat the trend of juvenile auto theft offenders in the future.
According to Slaughter, local law enforcement saw an uptick in auto theft during the summer of 2015. Within one month, auto theft increased more than 100 percent.
“We identified pretty quickly that it was one small segment of the youthful offender population that was in this recidivism hamster wheel that was driving a lot of resources and a lot of problems, and quite honestly, some very, very dangerous situations,” Slaughter said.
In response to the problem, Slaughter said Clearwater officers began to focus on those who he called chronic, prolific youth offenders, in an effort to stem the trend.
“We saw great declines in the fall of that year and St. Pete and the sheriff’s department kind of replicated it countywide,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter said a home task force was developed that focused on two categories of offenders. The first focused on chronic and recidivist offenders with five felonies within six months and the second was a broader category focusing on at-risk offenders.
Slaughter said officers would check in with offenders, working as a resource other agencies might not be able to provide.
“We saw pretty good returns, had heavy engagement in 2016, but in the May and June months of this year, we saw a pretty significant spike again,” he said.
Slaughter said that while the numbers have not reached the peak numbers seen in 2015, there has been a 25 percent increase in juvenile auto theft this year as opposed to 2016.
“It is definitely something that continues to be on our radar,” he said.
On Aug. 6, a stolen Ford Explorer collided with a 1999 Toyota Camry driven by Ricky Melendez, 29, who was traveling northbound on U.S. 19.
The Explorer went airborne, struck several parked vehicles, continued to flip and then caught on fire.
Of the four teens inside the vehicle – Keontae Brown, 16; Jimmie Goshey, 14; Dejarae Thomas, 16; and Keondrae Brown, 14 – only Keondrae Brown survived the crash.
Two other teens, Deyon Kaigler, 16, and Kamal Campbell, 18, who were traveling in a second stolen vehicle were later arrested.
Slaughter said the teens were well-known to local law enforcement and had a combined criminal history of more than 120 prior arrests.
“They were very familiar to us when the incident happened,” he said.
Although it’s easy to try to find someone to blame in situations like this, Slaughter cautioned those who would seek to blame the teen’s parents.
“There’s a lot of comments that parents are the problem,” Slaughter said. “There is definitely a component of parental involvement in some of these situations, but there’s multiple examples in this particular group that we are talking about where the parents had actually asked for help with having these kids contained because they couldn’t control them.
“And so there’s a little bit here that’s unjust,” he continued.
Slaughter said local law enforcement agencies are working together to try to stem the tide of car theft in the county.
“There’s multiple issues that need to come together to resolve this problem,” he said, adding that some upcoming changes with the juvenile department of justice were steps in the right direction.
Slaughter said it’s a problem that needs to be solved – and solved fast.
“It’s endangering our community and quite honestly, I expected the crash to happen a long time ago,” he said. “I’m surprised we made it this long.”