Suspect in patrol car theft arrested; motive still unknown

James Keith Lee, 39, of Tallahassee, Fla.
James Keith Lee, 39, of Tallahassee, Fla.

Bainbridge Public Safety has arrested a suspect in connection with the theft of a BPS patrol car on Sunday night outside the Bainbridge Walmart.

BPS arrested James Keith Lee, 39, of Bainbridge, on Monday night after he learned police were looking for him and turned himself in, according to Bainbridge Public Safety Director Eric Miller.

Lee was charged with felony theft by taking and damaging government property. He is being held at the Decatur County Jail.

According to BPS Director Miller, Lee did not make any statement, invoked his 5th Amendment rights not to incriminate himself, and asked for a lawyer. Therefore, it’s not currently known what motive someone may have had in taking the patrol car.

The patrol car was stolen at approximately 10:25 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 1. According to Miller, BPS Officer Charles Strickland III was on a routine foot patrol at the Bainbridge Walmart on U.S. 27 South.

“Walmart had recently requested extra patrol at the store, especially in the evening hours, so Officer Strickland was doing what he was supposed to by presenting a public law enforcement presence inside the store,” Miller said.

Strickland had left his patrol car’s engine running, however, the officer locked the doors with his remote key fob. BPS Director Miller explained it’s not unusual for officers to leave their cars running unattended for short periods of time.

Miller said there’s a lot of electronics inside the patrol car, including the car’s emergency two-way radio. All of the electronics combined draw a heavy amount of power from the car’s battery, so officers try to reduce how often they have to crank their cars during their shift, Miller said.

Otherwise, officers run the risk of their car possibly not starting up quickly when they need it to, Miller said. The alternative is powering off all the electronics, including the patrol car’s radio.

Officer Strickland was approached inside Walmart by witnesses who told him someone was stealing his patrol car. Strickland reported the theft to Decatur-Grady E-911 and to his supervisor before issuing a “Be on the Lookout” notice for the stolen car.

Minutes later, a Gadsden County, Fla., Sheriff’s Deputy who heard the notice saw the patrol car cross over the state line, according to BPS Director Miller. The Sheriff’s deputy pursued the patrol car approximately 10 miles, first onto Old Bainbridge-Concord Road and then onto a dirt road. At a dead end in the road, the patrol car thief bailed out and ran away on foot.

Later that night, a white 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee was reported stolen about 100 yards away from where the pursuit ended, leading police to believe the person who stole the patrol car may have waited in hiding until pursuing officers left the area and then stole the Jeep, Miller said.

The Bainbridge Public Safety director talked about what led his agency to arrest James Keith Lee.

“Walmart’s security cameras recorded a man drive into the parking lot in a red pickup truck, park and then enter the store,” Miller said. “The same man exits the store a few minutes later, retrieves a wrench from the tool box of his truck, and then uses the wrench to break out the driver’s side window of the patrol car. The suspect then drove off in the patrol car, heading south on U.S. 27.”

Miller said the image from the security camera is not clear enough to definitively ID Lee as the person shown.

“However, because [Lee] is not talking to us, he’s also not told us that there could be anyone else responsible,” Miller said.

BPS officers looked up who the pickup truck was registered to, and then called the owner, leaving him voice messages that officers wanted to talk with him as soon as possible, according to Miller. Those messages led Lee to turn himself in on Monday evening.

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