The Little Thief

At an age when most of the girls in her Liberty City housing project were treading the slippery path toward teen pregnancy, Carrie Jones was burning rubber down a less-traveled road. It wasn't that the slim tomboy disliked girls. She just didn't share their interests:

"They was into boys. I was into cars."
Literally. By age thirteen Carrie had become a celebrated anomaly within the inner-city fraternity for whom grand theft auto represents a lucrative distraction. Apprenticed by a 23-year-old pro, she quickly mastered the nimble rudiments of "sticking" a car, from the gentle pop of a vent window to the grinding surrender of a steering-wheel casing to the sweet squeal of ignition. "I wanted a car, I took a car," she says flippantly. Aspiring thieves clamored for her advice. Carrie Jones was a natural.

Much of her talent, like that of her colleagues, lay in the fearless apathy she acquired growing up. Orphaned in 1987, when her unwed mother died suddenly due to complications arising from asthma and scardosis, a rare lung disease, Carrie moved in with her grandmother, Hazel Jones. A proud, determined woman, Jones says her problems with Carrie grew out of typical squabbling: "She wanted to go out with her friends. I wanted her to improve her grades first. This is a girl, you have to understand, that's been in school since she was four years old. She was an A and B student."

By 1989 Carrie was regularly skipping school and had begun running away from home for weeks at a time. Hazel Jones says she made numerous efforts to seek help as her control over Carrie's behavior deteriorated and the girl's delinquency escalated. At first she limited her inquiries to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), but she soon grew frustrated. "These people took me to Hell and back and I still couldn't get any help," Jones recalls. "I talked to everybody HRS had. I went to the Juvenile Justice Center. I even went to [State Senator] Carrie Meek's office." Jones wanted Carrie declared incorrigible so she could be placed in a residential program far away from the Liberty City project where they lived. "I wanted to get her help before she became a delinquent. They told me they couldn't do anything because she hadn't committed a crime."

HRS officials say confidentiality forbids them from discussing any specifics in a juvenile's case. But court records show Carrie Jones was seen by agency caseworkers for "beyond control" behavior on three occasions, dating back to 1986. Each time, she was referred to "other agencies." In July of 1987, after she was caught shoplifting, HRS caseworkers referred Carrie to a program for first offenders. But such slaps on the wrist did nothing to slow Carrie's swift climb up the police blotter. And as she careened from discipline problems and retail theft to robbery and car heists, her relationship with Hazel Jones disintegrated. In July of 1989, Carrie left her grandmother's house for good.

That's when her thievery kicked into overdrive. "I'd steal or rob to get money from anywhere I could, people on the street. The money would last two or three weeks. I spent it on junk food," Carrie recalls, narrowing eyes that seem not so much tempered by experience, as hardened. "Sometimes we'd steal a car for fun and take it to the beach. Sometimes we'd sell the parts. Sometimes I just needed a place to rest my head. If [the police] took one away, I'd go out the next day and get another one."

Such impunity, however, made Carrie a sloppy criminal. During the summer and fall of 1989, three different police departments caught her. On August 9 she stole a car from a man's front yard, only to be spotted a few hours later, driving around the same neighborhood. Two weeks later she was nabbed in another hot vehicle, speeding down NW 79th Street. Both times she was released into the custody of a friend. On Friday, October 13, the day Carrie was pulled over in a blue sedan she had stolen a month earlier, City of Miami police decided she'd best await her court date in secure detention. "I told them my name and they said, `For you to be thirteen, you done did a lot of stuff,'" Carrie recounts. "They fingerprinted me and took my picture. They said, `You goin' to jail.' I was crying, but I didn't care."

As far as Carrie can tell, the juvenile justice system that has tangled her life for the past two years feels the same way. Forgotten for months on end, shuttled from program to program, and stubbornly heedless of the state's rehabilitative coaxing, the ex-car thief stands as a harrowing gauge of Dade County's decrepit crusade against delinquency.

Taken into custody after her October 13 arrest, Carrie spent the next two months languishing in the county's Juvenile Detention Center, on the northwest fringe of Miami. In November she pleaded guilty to the three auto-theft charges. But by the time she came before juvenile court Judge Tom Petersen on December 1 for sentencing, she had spent her birthday, Halloween, and Thanksgiving in lockup.

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