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Viral teen car theft trend has some Seattle 'Kia Boys' facing adult consequences

caption: Saylen Kelly, 18, with his daughter.
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Saylen Kelly, 18, with his daughter.
Courtesy of the family

One teenager's charges for allegedly stealing cars using a simple trick popularized on TikTok raises questions about how to handle the flood of recent youth car theft cases, especially when they land in adult court.

When Seattle schools reopened for in-person learning in 2021, Saylen Kelly was excited, recalled his twin sister, Saleen. But when he tried to return with her for their junior year at Chief Sealth International High School in West Seattle, Saleen said, her brother was asked to provide his birth certificate or another official form of identification. He had neither.

At home, Saylen Kelly broke down in tears, his sister said.

“I want to go to school, I want to get an education, I want to do better for myself,” Saleen remembers her brother saying. “He was very adamant about it.”

No one in Kelly’s family knew how to help him get his birth certificate, including their grandmother, who raised them. Seattle Schools told KUOW that ID is not required for high school, so it’s unclear why he was told it was.

Without access to his birth certificate, he gave up and dropped out completely.

Saylen Kelly is an alleged self-proclaimed “Kia Boy,” one of many teenagers charged with stealing Kia and Hyundai vehicles using a simple trick popularized on TikTok as the “Kia Challenge.”

RELATED: Thief-less in Seattle - Kia and Hyundai called upon to help fight local car theft

Kelly was charged in January in King County Superior Court with stealing eight cars, which police said were found parked around his grandmother’s house in Seattle's South Park neighborhood.

Juvenile car theft charges in King County were up 500 percent in 2023 after the viral TikTok video showed how to steal many Kia and Hyundai models using just a USB plug and a screwdriver. Many teens have boasted about their successes on social media and dubbed themselves “Kia Boys" or "Kia Girls.”

“You can steal one in seconds,” said Stephanie Trollen, juvenile operations manager at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “Unfortunately, that’s very attractive to children.”

RELATED: 'Astonishing' increase in car theft charges as juvenile criminal cases surge in King County

About 100 teens were charged with theft or possession of stolen vehicles in the county last year. For youth, car theft charges have typically led to diversion, instead of court, in recent years. But when teenagers turn 18, they can face adult felony charges for the same crimes.

Kelly, 18, could face many years in prison if convicted. In charging documents, police said he appeared to be part of a crew who stole Kias and Hyundais, and that he bragged about it on social media. Several of the vehicles he allegedly stole were used in thefts and a robbery, police said, although he has not been charged for those crimes.

Prosecutors consider car theft a gateway crime for teens, Trollen said.

“Once a kid is in a car, and on wheels, that can often lead to other and more serious crimes,” she said.

Saleen Kelly says she thinks her brother latched on to the “Kia Challenge” as a way to impress his friends - not because he wanted a life of crime.

“I know what he did was wrong, and the people who went through it have a right to be upset,” she said.

“But he’s just a kid. He needs help,” she said. “He’s really scared.”

The flood of teenagers suddenly facing car theft charges raises important questions about how to handle these cases, especially when they land in adult court, said Karen Pillar, director of policy and advocacy at Team Child.

“Eighteen is really an arbitrary cutoff,” Pillar said, for teens to be considered adults in the criminal legal system.

RELATED: How one city took on rising car thefts — and brought the numbers down

Her organization is involved with work groups in Olympia planning recommendations to increase the age for juvenile court to “a more developmentally appropriate 19 to 20, when there is still a lot of that adolescent growth happening,” Pillar said.

The Kia Boy trend, Pillar said, is a good example.

“Here we have a bunch of people who are having activities and behaviors that are really, very normally adolescent, in peer showing off and impulsivity, you know, and yet some of them will have a juvenile consequence, some of them will have an adult consequence,” she said.

In 2021, a State Board of Health legislative analysis found “very strong evidence” that extending the juvenile court jurisdiction by two years, through age 19, as Vermont has done, would improve long-term access to employment opportunities, housing, economic stability and health outcomes. The proposed legislation, introduced again in 2022, called for the state to formally consider making the same change.

In the South Park neighborhood, where Saylen Kelly grew up, and where police with a SWAT team recently stormed his grandmother’s house and arrested him, neighbors are grappling with how a boy they’ve known for years as gentle and industrious could be facing prison time.

Kelly was known for darting house to house on his bright green bike, eagerly offering to do odd jobs. As early as elementary school, he mowed lawns, washed cars, cleaned houses, and walked dogs.

“I just remember him as this adorable, super friendly, outgoing, and very sweet little kid,” said neighbor Kendra Wight, who would hire him to help her weed the lawn. “He was often hungry, and he would be trying to get together a little bit of money to buy burritos for himself and his siblings.”

Kelly’s grandmother was raising him and three of his brothers and sisters. Their father wasn’t around, and their mother was grappling with addiction and was in and out of jail, his sister said.

By 11 years old, Kelly had swept the floor and taken out the trash enough times at a local Vietnamese restaurant that the owners gave him a part-time job. A Seattle TV station did a feel-good story about the restaurant giving kids a foot in the door.

"I'm the type of kid that keeps their job," Kelly told KING-5. In a photo for the story, Kelly stands in the restaurant kitchen at his boss’s side, beaming proudly.

Before being charged for car theft, Kelly had one prior adult conviction, for malicious mischief. But friends and family say problems started earlier, beginning at school.

When he was in third grade at Roxhill Elementary School, Kelly barely spoke, said Bear Mahowald, who was a social-emotional learning specialist at the school.

“He's an incredibly smart kid, but he always struggled with the typical academic things like reading and math,” Mahowald said. Kelly’s emotional challenges were so intense that most of the focus at school was not on academics, but on helping him cope when he felt overwhelmed, Mahowald said.

“There was a time where he tried to throw his whole desk in the garbage can. In the middle of class, he emptied his desk, was throwing everything away, and dragged his desk over and put the leg in the garbage can,” Mahowald said.

Although reading and math were hard for him, Kelly loved learning.

“He was just always really curious," Mahowald said. Kelly wanted to understand how and why mechanical things worked.

“He taught himself how to start fixing lawn mowers and clocks and stuff like that,” Mahowald said.

In middle school, Kelly was put in a behavioral program located back at the same building where he had attended elementary school, Mahowald said. He started skipping school, his sister said.

“Then Covid hit, and 'boom,'” he disengaged completely from online learning, Saleen Kelly said, and started hanging out at the park and smoking pot with other kids who were ditching school.

He was eager to go back to in-person learning, but when he couldn’t make that work, he “just seemed to give up,” his sister said.

At high school graduation, Saleen Kelly said, it made her sad to see Saylen in the audience instead of by her side, getting his diploma, too.

“That’s my twin brother, you know? I wanted to be able to walk down the stage with him," she said. "But obviously, that didn’t happen.”

Saylen has a girlfriend and a baby now, but not having identification has been a barrier to work. Kelly asked his neighbor Kendra Wight for help getting his birth certificate so he could finally get the identification he needed to apply for a job. That was no small task, Wight said, without parents who could help.

“It was just really shocking to think about how formidable those challenges were, those hoops to jump through, just to be able to get you anywhere close to being able to get a job, which he was so keen to do,” Wight said.

In recent months, his sister said, her brother seemed to have given up hope, and his mental health was suffering.

“He struggles with taking care of himself,” Saleen Kelly said, including basic hygiene. “His teeth are rotten. He’s 18. He’s not going to have teeth when he’s 30.”

It’s the sort of thing that makes her realize how little her brother considers consequences, she said, including, she imagines, taking the “Kia Challenge,” which she considers out of character.

Maybe, Saleen Kelly surmised, “It was something fun to do, you know, like, ‘Oh, I can do this. So why not do it?’”

“I would like him to get some sort of mental help, like a therapist or a psychiatrist or something,” she said. “I don't think throwing the book at him is going to help him out.”

How to handle young adults accused of car theft will likely become a larger question in King County given the ongoing wave of teen charges, some of which will, like Kelly's, land in adult court.

In the first month of 2019, approximately one juvenile was charged with stealing or possessing a stolen car in King County. This January, at least 25 juveniles were charged with car theft.

Kelly’s trial is scheduled for March.

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