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As years go by, grieving sister carries on the search

Though clues are scarce in her brother's carjacking death six years ago, she won't give up.

By ALEX LEARY
Published June 24, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Every June for the past six years, Kayla Chanthavong has flown from California to St. Petersburg for a family reunion.

It's a torturous journey.

Six years ago today her younger brother was murdered by someone who stole his cherished sports car. Sonphet "Tim" Chanthavong's killer has not been found, and police have no fresh leads.

But Kayla Chanthavong, 29, has not relinquished hope.

On Thursday she returned to the area her brother was found and passed out fliers asking people to come forward with information. She'll do the same today.

"Have you ever lost a loved one??" the flier reads. "I'm sure you have! If not, put yourself in our shoes!!!!"

To pry loose aging clues, the family has increased from $5,000 to $15,000 the reward for anyone whose information leads to an arrest. They ask people to call the St. Petersburg Police Department's homicide unit at 893-7164.

"We feel strongly this person is still out there," Kayla Chanthavong said. Standing at her brother's casket six years ago, she promised to find the killer.

"I don't care if it takes me 10, 15, 20 years, I won't give up on solving this case."

On the night of his death, Tim Chanthavong drove his red Acura NSX to Spec's Music on 66th Street N and bought a CD single, Genie in a Bottle by Christina Aguilar.

Police think the flashy sports car, worth about $40,000, attracted the attention of one or more gunmen who confronted the 22-year-old when he came outside.

Ten minutes later, Tim was dead. A jogger found him in a driveway about eight blocks from the store.

Whoever took the Acura was involved in a hit-and-run accident at 53rd Avenue S and Seventh Street, and then abandoned the car, its right front corner crumpled, rear window shattered and one tire blown out.

"He loved it," Kayla Chanthavong said.

Her brother, who worked as a mortgage loan officer, washed it constantly and proudly drove around town. While in the music store, he talked on his cell phone with his brother about getting a new exhaust.

Homicide detectives say Chanthavong's death seemed random. He did not have enemies, was not in a gang, and did not buy or sell drugs. The 1996 graduate of St. Petersburg High School may have been killed for what proved to be a 15-minute joy ride, police said.

The investigation went cold, despite attempts to publicize it. "The information flow in terms of getting significant leads has been almost nonexistent," homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz said Thursday.

The killer is likely local, Puetz said, because he got across town quickly in the Acura. Puetz also encourages anyone with information to come forward.

Today, as they have every year, the Chanthavongs will visit the area Tim was found and then his grave. "My dad won't go to the cemetery," Kayla said. "It's just too emotional for him."

They try to remember the good things: Tim's sense of humor, his positive attitude and his penchant for fine clothes and cars.

"He wanted a Ferrari," his sister said.

Alex Leary can be reached at 893-8472 or leary@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 24, 2005, 00:45:09]


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