LAKELAND (FOX 13) - Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is blaming the Department of Juvenile Justice for the chaos caused by young people racing down I-4 in a stolen car Sunday night.
“Everybody gets it,” Judd said the day after the chase. ”Except DJJ. They still don’t get it.”
Judd says DJJ made a big mistake when the agency decided to put 16-year-old Leslie Diaz on probation and send her to a halfway house rather than to a juvenile jail.
Diaz allegedly stole the keys from a Department of Children employee's purse and then took her van.
That night, Diaz picked up her 20-year-old buddy, Dustin Cheasebro. Investigators say the two held up a Circle K on Old Kathleen Road.
The following day, they hooked up with 17-year-old Justin Amos and two girls, ages 13 and 15.
When they were spotted in the stolen vehicle by a Lakeland police officer, they jumped onto I-4 with law enforcement from several agencies nipping at their heels.
Detectives say they exceeded 100 miles an hour.
Eventually, the van hit another vehicle near the 50th Street exit in Hillsborough County and the foursome was captured.
“Had this young lady been detained, [Cheasebro ] wouldn’t have had a car,” said Judd. “We don’t know what he would have been doing, but probably not going to church. But he wouldn’t have been in that car, robbing that store and fleeing the next day.”
Judd wants more jail space for the worst juveniles, plus rigorous programs to prevent recidivism before they become hardened criminals.
FOX 13 contacted the DJJ for an interview or written response but did not get one by late Tuesday.