Teen's Late Night Car Thefts Get More Dangerous In Pursuits Across Connecticut

On an evening in early June, Manchester and Suffield police watched a home in Hebron, waiting for a suspected car thief who had crisscrossed the state on a reckless, extraordinary crime spree.

The wanted teenager's capers included car thefts and car burglaries from Greenwich to Vernon, police chases through several towns, a highway run from state police at more than 100 mph and at least one crash. Odds were increasing daily that someone would be hurt or killed, Manchester police Officer Jason Wagner said.

"Things were getting more and more violent," Wagner said in a recent interview.

The 15-year veteran is the lead investigator in the continuing case, which covers at least 18 communities and involves dozens of thefts, chases and property damage. Wagner also was at the center of the investigation's most tense – and potentially most violent – moment.

The 17-year-old suspect, a Manchester native, has been arrested and is in juvenile detention, police said. Because of his age, police would not release his name.

Teenagers in stolen cars have exacted a heavy toll recently. Rosella Shuler, 56, died after she was struck by a stolen SUV on July 18 while waiting for a bus in Hartford. Three teens from Hartford who fled police in a stolen car were arrested after a chase and crash early Monday in Wallingford, police said. No injuries were reported. A 15-year-old was illegally driving the car, which had been stolen out of Rocky Hill, police said. Last summer, a 13-year-old was killed after crashing the stolen car he was driving on Windsor Street in Hartford.

The Spree Begins

Known to Manchester police for motor vehicle thefts and burglaries dating back to 2015, the suspect in the recent spree was back on cops' radar for cars stolen in late May and early June.

"We had a bunch of cases on midnight shift. He was getting into pursuits with different officers in stolen cars," Wagner said.

Most of the hot cars were Hondas. Police learned later that the teen found old Honda keys at a junk yard, filed them down and used the set to start 1990s Accords and Civics.

Along with a changing roster of accomplices, Wagner said the youth, always the driver, headed out on late-night "car shopping" exploits, snatching change, sunglasses, GPS devices, even wallets and purses from unlocked cars. Big prizes were cars with keys inside.

Wagner said he later asked the teen what he did after stealing a car.

" 'I just drove,' he told me,'" Wagner said.

With a crew of two or three passengers, the spree leader drove north to Holland, Mass., and south to the Connecticut shoreline. He drove from New Britain to Torrington, to Suffield, Enfield, West Hartford, Wethersfield, East Hartford, Manchester and Vernon. He dumped most of the stolen cars in Hartford, where he sold some for $200 to $300, police said. Others became "community cars," available to the neighborhood.

Police confirmed the 17-year-old as the main suspect in the opportunistic binge after he took a Nissan Murano in Manchester on June 5. The keys were left in that car, along with a credit card that the youth tried to use, unsuccessfully, at the local Walmart, Wagner said. In less than two weeks, from late May to early June, the Manchester teen stole at least a dozen cars, but the extent of his crimes is still not known, Wagner said.

Suffield police were alerted when three cars were reported stolen from their town in that period — more motor vehicle thefts than the quiet community usually sees in six months. The 17-year-old has been charged with stealing two cars from Suffield, a Toyota Prius and an Infinity sedan, police Capt. Christopher McKee said. The Prius had a push-button starter that only worked in proximity to the key fob, so when the teen drove just a short distance, the engine died, McKee said. An Audi was stolen a short time later, but the teen is not charged with that theft at this time, he said.

Suffield cops soon learned they shared a suspect with Manchester, and the two departments started working together.

June 6-8

In the early hours of June 6, a Manchester police officer spotted a Civic reported stolen out of Vernon. The driver refused to pull over and the ensuing chase ended when the thief crashed the car at New State and Adams roads. The spree leader and two others ran from the wreck.

At about 1:30 a.m., a video surveillance camera captured the same driver scaling a fence at a Tolland Turnpike business, where he stole a black Mercedes and was off again into the night, Wagner said.

Later that day, an informant called to say the suspect would be at a home in Hebron. McKee, Wagner and other officers set up surveillance, but the teenager didn't show and they left. A bit later, Wagner received another call from the same informant, who said the suspect had fallen asleep earlier, but was now headed to the Hebron address.

Police again set up watch outside the home. Wagner was in an unmarked car. When the suspect arrived and backed into the driveway in the Mercedes, Wagner drove down the street and pulled into the driveway, nose-to-nose with the stolen car.

"He sees me and and tries driving around me on the passenger side of my car," Wagner said. "I was still moving and able to turn just enough to make him stop.

"I jumped out of my car, my driver's side door was open, and I got him at gunpoint. I'm yelling, 'Stop the car! Stop the car!' He backed up and floored it at me," Wagner said.

Wagner said he barely had time to hop onto his car's running board, where he stood with the driver's door still open. The Mercedes hit the door and briefly pinned Wagner to the car frame, but the impact was not severe enough to cause serious injuries.

"Sometimes you have to get lucky on this job," he said.

He could have fired at the fleeing driver, Wagner said, but he made a split-second decision not to shoot, taking into account the teen's age and other factors. Still, the hazard the boy now posed to himself and the public was higher than ever. Manchester police officers who chased the Mercedes from Hebron had to break off the pursuit because of the youth's reckless speed. About a half hour later, a state trooper spotted the car on Route 6 in Bolton and chased it onto I-384 West at speeds over 100 mph, Wagner said.

The teen dumped the Mercedes that night in New Britain, stole a Civic there, had to drop that car in Torrington when the wheel rims mysteriously caught fire, then stole a Cadillac in that town. He was driving the stolen Caddy in East Hartford when it broke down during a chase on Route 2, police said. One person was arrested in that incident, but not the main suspect, Wagner said.

Wagner said he called the boy's mother on June 8 to tell her how dangerous the situation had become.

"I said to mom, 'I need your help,'" he said.

Another relative told police the teen had come to her house in Hartford that morning. She said the boy's mother had relayed the news about the crime spree and the rising danger. The woman said she ordered the kid into her car and was going to turn him in to police, but he jumped out of the vehicle on Annawan Street in Hartford.

After learning that the suspect was wearing blue jeans and a red shirt, Manchester police headed to Hartford, where Det. James Moore spotted the suspect getting on a bus near Dunkin' Donuts Park. Moore, Sgt. John Rossetti and Det. Daniel Bontempo watched the suspect get off on Albany Avenue at Magnolia Street, where he went into a convenience store and was arrested there without incident at about 1:30 p.m.

Lock Your Car

Suffield and Manchester police organized a meeting of law enforcement agencies on June 14 to discuss the recent spate of car thefts and burglaries. About 40 representatives of local and state agencies attended. Held at the Manchester station, the meeting centered on sharing intelligence and the status of ongoing investigations, McKee said. Several officers also called for a concerted effort to educate people about locking their cars and not leaving valuables inside.

The reckless youth also was a focus of discussion, McKee said.

"What was really concerning from my perspective was the increased level of violence, just the boldness that this young man was displaying," he said.

"He drove directly at Officer Wagner," McKee said. "If he's willing to do that, what's he going to do to another citizen who tries to stop him from stealing a car?"

In an interview after his arrest, the youth said he ducked and raised one arm as he sped past Wagner because he thought he was about to get shot, Wagner said. He also cried while apologizing.

"He felt bad... I think he realized the totality of everything that he had been involved in," Wagner said.

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