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Trouble plagued kettle suspect

The person found dead in a submerged car is the man police say stole from Pinellas Salvation Army bell ringers.

By ALEX LEARY and SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published December 7, 2005


Lee J. George, the suspected kettle bandit found dead Monday in a submerged car in Tampa, was in trouble throughout his adult life, battling addiction, family trouble and encounters with police.

To pay for a drug habit, he stole from his cancer-stricken mother, brother and friends. George's ex-wife refers to him as an "awful, despicable man" who was convicted of shaking her baby.

But after his 1999 release from prison on a grand theft conviction, the out-of-control lifestyle took a hopeful detour. Inspired by a work-release program, George opened a Corvette restoration shop in Clearwater, Leevettes. His teenage son, Lee George Jr., created the Web site.

"Things were the best they'd been for him in a long time," his older brother, 44-year-old Dale George of St. Petersburg, said Tuesday. "He had a day job and was hanging out with the kids on the weekends. He was fun to be around."

The turnaround was short-lived. The Corvette business slowed down after 9/11, his brother said. His 17-year-old son was killed in a car accident in Georgia in October 2003.

So began the final downward spiral of George's life, culminating in a weekslong crack binge fueled by money he robbed from Salvation Army kettles, authorities say.

On Tuesday, Tampa police confirmed George, 41, was the man found in the back seat of an overturned, submerged 2002 Buick Century in a creek north of the Hillsborough River. The medical examiner concluded George drowned, but the time of death remains uncertain, said Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin.

Detectives found a half-bottle of liquor and small unmarked pill bottles containing marijuana near the car, which was stolen from the Beach Comber restaurant in Clearwater on Thanksgiving Day. The car belonged to a 76-year-old New Port Richey man.

Toxicology results will take two weeks at least, so authorities do not know how much alcohol or drugs George had in his system when the Buick went into the creek, Durkin said.

"But all indications are right now that this was a single-car accident, and alcohol is suspected. The reason why he was in Tampa, and how he ended up in the creek, is still unknown," he said.

"Unfortunately," Durkin continued, "a lot of the questions that we have will never be answered now that Lee George is dead."

* * *

He was born in St. Petersburg and raised by his mother and adopted father. During high school, his brother said, George started experimenting with marijuana and cocaine.

Records show his first arrest, for driving under the influence, came in 1983. The following year, he was arrested for auto theft, selling marijuana, dealing in stolen property and DUI again.

"He pretty much got in trouble all the time," said Dale George, who heard about his brother's problems while traveling the world with the Navy.

In 1986, at age 22, George met Caterina Foster, a single mother of three who soon learned she was pregnant again. George was not the father but he embraced the situation. "He would feel the baby kick in my stomach," said Foster, who lives in Palm Harbor.

The boy was born Sept. 9, 1986, and George showed up at the hospital. "He asked if he could hold him and then he said, "Caterina, I really do love you and want to marry you,"' she recalled. Then he asked her if she would name the child after him.

She did. They married in November. "He portrayed the most perfect picture of fatherhood," Foster said. "That was the only good side I saw of him."

Six weeks later, she came home and George told her Lee Jr. had fallen from the bassinet. Foster was suspicious and took the baby to a hospital. Doctors, she said, told her the boy had been shaken.

Pinellas Park police arrested George on an aggravated child abuse charge. He was convicted.

Foster divorced George and got a restraining order against him. But he was the boy's legal father, and his family fought for custody, eventually winning.

Though George was in and out of jail, he managed to keep a relationship with the boy. The two got along well, Foster acknowledged, bonding over a mutual fondness for fast cars. Lee Jr. was 17 when he died in a car accident coming home from a high school football game with a friend. "It broke his heart," Dale George said of his brother. "He was down quite a while."

His brother's drug use picked up, as did his trouble with the law. Arrests followed for DUI in Tampa, fleeing and eluding police and domestic assault, according to state records. Things turned uglier about a month ago. Dale George heard his brother had been smoking crack at his house and kicked him out.

"When he was on crack," Dale George said, "he was a totally different person. He'd steal from his family and friends. It didn't matter."

He said his brother once stole an electric piano of his and sold it for drugs. Another time, he took checks from their mother's roommate and caregiver.

* * *

In his final, most desperate act, George apparently turned to the Salvation Army kettles.

Police say George swiped his first kettle Nov. 28, from a blind bell ringer, and his most recent on Saturday. The money people stuff into the kettles helps buy food and Christmas gifts for the disadvantaged in Pinellas.

Word of the so-called kettle bandit spread in the news, drawing even national attention. On Friday, Dale George caught a glimpse of the suspect on TV from a surveilence video at one of the kettle thefts. He immediately recognized the man as his brother and called Pinellas Park police. But by then, St. Petersburg police already had identified his brother as the suspect.

"I knew he'd end up dead at the rate he was going," Dale George said. "He was totally out of his mind."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 7, 2005, 00:46:58]


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