SPPD on auto thefts: "We're seeing a lot of the same faces"

Last year in Florida, nearly 43,000 vehicles were reported stolen. One Bay Area police department has made it a point to remind drivers how often it happens and how, sometimes, they can inadvertently turn their vehicles into easy targets.

The good news, at least in St. Pete, is that auto thefts are going down. The bad news is, we're entering the summer months when, historically, the cases increase with so many teens out of school. While even the most vigilant person can't prevent every crime, police are urging drivers to take precautions to steer criminals away.

"Sometimes, they take them and they do other burglaries with them, whether it's residential or vehicle burglaries or they just go joy riding or they go brag about to their friends," said Det. Mallory Webster with St. Petersburg Police Department's Property Crimes Unit.

From the beginning of the year to May, St. Petersburg police have investigated 308 car thefts. Last year, were 978 total cases. In 2016, there were 1,095 cases. Police say those numbers are actually down 30 percent compared to five-year averages. We're just hearing about it more because they're working to spread awareness about how vehicles are being stolen: unlocked doors with access to keys, and even cars with ignitions running.

"We try to collect DNA, try to collect fingerprints, try to talk to witnesses, whatever we can do to help Identify who took this car, who had this car, we check surveillance video," Webster said.

Home surveillance video can be key when there are few clues left behind. "We end up generally arresting people we are familiar with," Webster said. "They don't just steal one car, generally, and stop. So we're seeing a lot of the same faces and we are familiar with a lot of them."

Saturday afternoon, Joe Hernandez got news he didn't want to hear. "My son came in and said hey dad, my truck had just been stolen.”

It happened in seconds. Surveillance video caught the entire thing. You can see his daughter walk up the driveway of his Yacht Club Estates home. All the while, a white vehicle sits in the road with two people inside. A male gets out, walks up the driveway, carefully opens the passenger door of Hernandez's Toyota Tundra, slides to the driver's seat and the truck turns on. He backs the truck out and disappears.

"There were no keys in the vehicle," Hernandez said. "The passenger door was unlocked but there were no keys in it so how they started it, I still have no idea."

He posted about it on Facebook. Sure enough, someone else shared a surveillance photo under his post, showing a car burglary in process. "And, in the background was my truck being used to do it," Hernandez said.

Fortunately, Monday afternoon, police found Hernandez's truck, ditched in south St. Pete. "It had four miles left until it was going to run out of fuel and the tire was blown and a little damage to the side," Hernandez said.

There was also a mess of stolen items inside. "Multiple driver's licenses, credit cards," Hernandez said.

He thinks there need to be stricter punishments for car thieves. After all, he had another car stolen last February.

"If they would prosecute the people that did this a little more heavily, maybe you'd have less of it but it just seems especially, when it's kids, they can do it 10, 20, 30 times before anything really happens to them," Hernandez said.

Police remind drivers to always lock their cars, check the glove compartment for any valet keys, don't leave valuables in plain view and most importantly, don't leave your car running.