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A lunch date with a man suspected of murder

By RYAN DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

PORT RICHEY -- Jeffrey Crouch picked the most out-of-the-way picnic table at Hooters.

We sat down, and he told me I looked paranoid.

Paranoid about going to lunch with a murder suspect?

Not really, I thought, but then again why was our waitress, Elsie, looking at us like that?

It must be Jeff, I figured. After all, that's why he was there with me. He wants people to stop giving him funny looks. He wants them to stop comparing him to O.J. Simpson. He wants them to realize he's just a maintenance worker/shrimper, not a "criminal mastermind."

But, he said, "everybody knows."

They know that in 1987, he was arrested on a first-degree murder charge after his wife was found strangled. Prosecutors dropped the charge after a judge ruled that Crouch's alleged confession could not be used at trial.

And in 1998, he and his then-girlfriend were the only people at home when his 20-month-old son, Travis, suffered a deadly skull-breaking blow, police said. The killing remains unsolved. Crouch remains a suspect.

He knew I knew that. So we skipped to the menu.

I ordered a grilled grouper sandwich ($5.95) and an unsweetened ice tea ($1.50).

He went for the sweetened tea ($1.50) and a sirloin steak sandwich ($5.95) with mushrooms (50 cents) and Swiss cheese (35 cents) -- plus a cup of New England clam chowder to take home ($2.25).

The 46-year-old called the Times to publicize new information about his son's homicide and to complain the courts are treating him like a killer.

I agreed to sit down with him, thinking it was sure to produce a story.

We met at Hooters because, as Crouch put it, "the Times is paying."

Elsie brought our drinks, and we got down to business.

"I've been through a lot," Crouch said. "Two of my family members have been killed."

The cops won't treat him fairly, he said. And it's not just the cops, he said. Local judges won't treat him right, either. He was arrested in February, accused of getting angry and beating up his girlfriend, Melissa Uhr, after she wanted $7 to buy cigarettes.

As she did last year when Crouch was charged with beating her, Uhr won't testify against him in court next month, he said.

"She realizes," he said, "that she goes off on me. She knows she created the whole thing."

A judge ordered Crouch to have no contact with Uhr.

Crouch thinks he'll beat the domestic violence charge. His girlfriend wants it dropped. He wants it dropped. So Crouch wants to know why the judge won't drop the no-contact order. And why a judge previously spoke about being aware of Crouch's "past."

"What past?" Crouch said. "I haven't been convicted of anything."

(And except a 2001 conviction for violating his probation and having contact with Uhr, a 2000 conviction for domestic violence on Uhr, and a 1979 conviction for drunk driving in a boat, he's right.)

Before Elsie brought our meals, he gave me the new evidence. He said a co-worker saw his ex-girlfriend shaking Travis sometime before the toddler died. He's not sure exactly when or where. He said that proves she treated his son poorly.

"If it's murder," he said, "she did it."

Our missions -- much like our eyes -- weren't meeting. What was the headline to say? "Crouch says he didn't kill wife or son"?

That's old news, so I asked more questions.

Why do you keeping getting in trouble?

"I have girlfriend problems for some reason."

Have you had any contact with Melissa since your arrest in February?

"No."

None?

"None."

So I asked for her number so I could call to confirm his story. He gave it to me.

Jeff, that's your number. How can you have no contact with her if you have the same number?

"It's a mystery."

Jeff ate half his steak sandwich, got a to-go box for the other half and ordered Key Lime pie for dessert ($2.95).

"It's on the Times," he said.

I got a refill on my tea and a funny look from Elsie, who kept confusing me and my unsweetened tea with Jeff and his sweetened tea.

Crouch never touched the pie. He grabbed another to-go box and slid it into his growing sack of take-home food.

I paid and followed Jeff's maroon minivan out of the parking lot. Then I noticed the tattered bumper sticker on the back of his van:

"Support your local police."

-- Ryan Davis is the police reporter in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is rdavis@sptimes.com.

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