Florida Man Accused of Bringing a Child on Crime Spree to ‘Toughen Him Up’

Ernest McKnight III

Polk County Sheriff Ernest McKnight III.

Ernest McKnight III is the Florida man who told investigators he brought a young boy with him during a recent crime spree in order to “toughen” the child, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

McKnight was arrested on November 12 and faces multiple charges including burglary, grand theft auto, tampering with evidence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The sheriff’s department did not specify the relationship between McKnight and the child but did note in a news release that the boy had been safely returned to his family.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. McKnight Told Deputies He Didn’t Want the Boy to be ‘Soft’

ernest mcknight

Polk County Clerk of CourtsErnest McKnight was accused of bringing an 8-year-old boy with him on a crime spree in Lake Wales, Florida.

Deputies said McKnight had an 8-year-old child with him during “some” of the accused crimes. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office did not specify whether McKnight had the child participate in any of the crimes or whether the boy simply rode in the vehicle with him.

The boy appears to have been with McKnight during at least three of the accused heists. McKnight is charged with three counts of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” inmate records show.

After McKnight was arrested, a detective asked McKnight why he had brought the young boy with him. According to the sheriff’s office, McKnight answered, “I was trying to toughen him up. I don’t want him to be soft.”

Sheriff Grady Judd commented on that answer in the news release about McKnight’s arrest: “Taking a child out with you while you’re committing felonies is not the proper way to create a positive influence. I’m quite confident that there is not a child psychologist out there who would agree with this guy’s idea of proper activity for a child.”

2. McKnight Was Accused of Stealing a Car & a Package From a Victim’s Front Porch

McKnight was accused of beginning the recent crime spree by stealing a car on November 7. According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, McKnight stole a red Hyundai that was parked along State Road 60 and Central Avenue in Lake Wales. On the arrest report, available on the Polk County Clerk of Courts website, the officer further described the car as a red Hyundai Elantra with North Carolina plates.

Deputies said the car was idling when McKnight stole it. The owner was doing “surveying for construction” and was not behind the wheel at the time.

On November 12, another victim reported seeing a man going through his vehicle around 7 a.m. The victim had parked his Chevy HHR along County Road 653 near the Lake Ashton community as he walked his dog. The man told police the suspect fled in a red Hyundai. Investigators later determined it was the same car McKnight had been accused of stealing five days earlier.

A few hours later, another Lake Wales said McKnight stole a package from a front porch. According to deputies, the victim shouted at McKnight to return the package and he responded, “It’s mine now!” The victim said McKnight drove away in the red Hyundai.

In a Facebook post about McKnight’s arrest, the sheriff’s office commented specifically on the theft from the front porch. The department said that when a detective asked McKnight why he had decided to grab the package, McKnight responded, “It was there for me to take.”

3. McKnight Had the Child With Him As He Tried to Speed Away From Police While Traveling 120 Miles Per Hour: Arrest Report

ernest mcknight

Polk County Clerk of CourtsErnest McKnight was accused of bringing an 8-year-old boy with him on a crime spree in Lake Wales, Florida.

According to the arrest report, a Lake Wales police officer spotted the red Hyundai on November 12 after receiving a “be on the lookout” alert. The alert was sent out after the victim, whose package had been stolen from the front porch, called the police and described both the vehicle and the suspect.

The officer explained in the affidavit that as McKnight turned directly in front of his cruiser, he noticed that both the car and the suspect matched the description from the BOLO. The officer turned on his siren and lights but McKnight did not stop. The officer wrote that McKnight tried to speed away on Highway 60 and that the vehicle reached speeds up to 120 miles per hour during the pursuit.

The officer followed McKnight but lost sight of him on Tupelo Lane. According to the report, the officer “observed tire marks in the dirt road that led into a grassy area of a residence.” The Lakes Wales police officer “held the perimeter” until backup arrived from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Unit. The team then found the red Hyundai parked behind the residence.

Deputies approached the vehicle and demanded McKnight get out. But McKnight had already exited the vehicle and had gone inside the residence. According to the arrest report, McKnight walked out of the home with his hands up and peacefully surrendered. The officer wrote in the report that at that point, he “heard a young child screaming” before the boy also walked out of the home.

Officers searched the home but no one else was inside. The report states that once McKnight was arrested, it was determined that the young child had been inside the vehicle during the high-speed chase.

4. McKnight Faces at Least 12 Charges

ernest mcknight iii

Polk County Clerk of CourtsErnest McKnight was accused of bringing an 8-year-old boy with him on a crime spree in Lake Wales, Florida.

Court records show McKnight’s arraignment hearing was scheduled for December 16. As of this writing, he remained behind bars at the Polk Central County Jail. He faces at least 12 charges, according to the booking sheet filed with the Polk County Clerk of Courts:

  • Driving While License Suspended or Revoked, Habitual Offender
  • Flee/Attempt to Elude Law Enforcement with Lights/Sirens
  • Negligent Child Abuse Without Bodily Harm
  • Grand Theft of a Motor Vehicle
  • Contribute to the Delinquency of a Minor (3 counts)
  • Burglary of an Unoccupied Conveyance
  • Unarmed Burglary of an Occupied Structure
  • Unarmed Burglary of an Unoccupied Dwelling
  • Petit Theft
  • Tampering with Physical Evidence

As of this writing, court records did not list a defense attorney for McKnight.

5. McKnight Has Been Arrested Multiple Times & Served Time in Prison in 2009

ernest mcknight

Polk County SheriffErnest McKnight III booking photo from 2004.

McKnight was known to law enforcement in Polk County prior to this latest incident. Court and inmate records list arrests dating back to at least 2004. In May 2004, he was accused of shoplifting and released on bond. Later that year, McKnight was arrested for petit theft and possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office explained that McKnight’s record includes charges for “Possession of a Firearm by Convicted Felon, Domestic Violence, Loitering/Prowling, Narcotics, Resisting, Theft, and DWLSR.”

McKnight served time in prison in 2009. Inmate records from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office show he was booked on June 25, 2009, for violating his probation.

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