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Time is enemy in riddle of killing

By the time Michael Wachholtz's body was found Jan. 6, police had lost valuable clues to help solve his slaying.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published February 24, 2004

TAMPA - From the start, detectives were losing out to the clock.

By the time Michael Wachholtz's body was found Jan. 6 in the back of his maroon 1992 Jeep Cherokee, parked near the leasing office of his Town 'N Country apartment complex, the 26-year-old waiter had been dead for at least a week - more likely two.

That was long enough for the heat to speed up decomposition of his body, in effect melting away priceless clues to how he died.

It was long enough for strangers or acquaintances who saw Wachholtz just before his death to forget what may have been a fleeting but invaluable glimpse.

"The urgency on a case like this is, we have to get to people while this is hot. Because memories fade and insignificant details become lost," said Sgt. J.R. Burton, head of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office homicide division. "Time is our enemy."

Detectives learned last week that all they can depend on now is memories. Science, in Wachholtz's case, can't help.

The Medical Examiner's Office has ruled the cause of Wachholtz's death as "undetermined." In other words, the body was so decomposed that autopsy and toxicology results came back inconclusive.

The news was disappointing to detectives, who were frustrated with the lack of forensic evidence in the Jeep.

For Wachholtz's friends and loved ones, the medical examiner's conclusion leaves them with the nagging question: How did Michael die?

Fred Van Den Abbeel, Wachholtz's roommate since September, said it's hard to move on without knowing what happened to his friend.

"Undetermined' doesn't close any doors in the grieving process," Van Den Abbeel said. "It doesn't help me get over this."

Searching for a witness

Dr. Jacqueline Lee, associate medical examiner, has seen bodies in all states of decomposition.

Although Wachholtz's case was not the worst she's seen, "it was just bad enough to interfere with determining how he died," she said.

"The things that are lacking with the decomposed body are the subtle findings such as suffocation, strangulation, that might have caused damage to the tissues but not the bone," said Lee, who performed the autopsy.

That means authorities still have a long list of questions that may never be answered without the help of a witness.

Where was Wachholtz when he died? Who was he with? Was his death violent or was it an accident that happened at one of the clubs or parties he was known to enjoy?

"The biggest question is, where was Michael when he died?" Burton said. "We still need to backtrack to the last person that was with him. We know it was someone because he had to have been driven back there to the apartment complex."

Detectives have considered that Wachholtz could have died of an overdose and then was transported back to his apartment complex by friends or acquaintances who panicked.

The decomposition was so severe it would have altered the chemical makeup of any substances that were in Wachholtz's body when he died.

"We've pursued this case like it was a murder," Burton said. "So we've investigated every avenue. But the fact is, we still don't even know that there was a traumatic event."

"An answer' is out there

Plenty of manpower went into the Wachholtz case.

"We had several nights where I had seven guys going in seven different directions," Burton said. "It's very frustrating when we know the answer is out there, if we can only reach the right person."

Their work was scrutinized by members of the gay community who feared the Dec. 20 disappear ance of Jason Galehouse, another gay Tampa man, was the start of targeted violence against homosexuals.

The Sheriff's Office has found no connection between Wachholtz's death and the disappearance of Galehouse, 26, who is still missing, Burton said.

But for Equality Florida spokesman Brian Winfield, Wachholtz's inconclusive autopsy and the fact that Galehouse hasn't been found "totally leaves open the possibility the two might be related."

"Everybody was hoping the autopsy would give us answers," Winfield said. "By knowing the cause of death, it can often give you an indication of whether it's a hate crime or not. Because hate crimes, they tend to be overkill."

Detectives know this much, based on more than 50 interviews with Wachholtz's friends and even distant acquaintances:

He left his apartment at 5305 Bay Club Circle in the Rocky Point area about midnight tDec. 20 and did not return. He was last seen driving the Jeep Cherokee, which had a dent on the rear bumper and a missing right front headlight frame.

He had a blue NOKIA Model 3650 camera cell phone from AT&T Wireless and spoke with a few people after leaving his apartment, Burton said. But the cell phone hasn't been found, and detectives don't know where Wachholtz was when he last used it.

Wachholtz had lived in the apartment, near the Bahama Breeze restaurant where he waited tables, only a few months. Before that, he lived with Melissa and Steve Hartford for five years in Tarpon Springs.

Wachholtz did not speak to most of his relatives but had recently resumed contact with his mother in Missouri.

He was a friendly, outgoing type who liked nightlife but was private about his personal affairs. The Hartfords have told the Times he never brought love interests to their home, but they know his last serious relationship ended a year or so before he disappeared.

They said they worried recently when Wachholtz started going out with men he met through Internet chat rooms. Authorities have looked into the chat rooms, too, but that hasn't led to anything helpful, Burton said.

So what next?

"We just try to keep the interest out there, and we'll revisit some of the people we've spoken to already," Burton said. "Someone's out there with an answer, thinking, should I call police or not?

"They need to call us."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 226-3373.

If you can help

Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers toll-free at 1-800-873-8477 or the Sheriff's Office at 247-8000. Tipsters may remain anonymous.

[Last modified February 24, 2004, 01:14:58]


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