Families long for answers

They hope someone can help find the killers who shattered many lives.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007


Lawrence Ricker and Freddie Lee White were beaten to death. Ronald Williams was shot in the heart on Mother's Day. Tim Chanthavong may have been shot and killed because someone coveted his red Acura NSX. All four men were law-abiding and loved by their families. And the killers responsible for slaying them remain on the loose. Every police department has unsolved homicides, cases that defy closure because witnesses won't come forward or leads run dry. For the families of the slain, the pain of losing a loved one is heightened by the knowledge that the killers are unpunished. Today, Neighborhood Times takes a look at four unsolved homicide cases from the files of the St. Petersburg Police Department. There are others in St. Petersburg, and in other area police departments, too. In Pinellas Park, for example, two elderly women were killed in their homes during a single summer week in 1973. Geneva Sager, 74, died of blunt trauma and Helen Lazette, 76, was stabbed. Both were sexually assaulted. A few weeks earlier and only a few miles away, in an unincorporated area of the county, Esther Jay Cochran, 73, was killed in similar circumstances in her home. For 34 years the killer or killers have dodged the law. Some of these cases have a chance of being solved; some are "cold" and have little chance. Today's four cases are still being investigated, but progress has been slow. Police are hoping to jog some memories.

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or by calling 727 893-8472.

Sonphet 'Tim' Chanthavong

Sonphet "Tim" Chanthavong doted over his car, a red 1994 Acura NSX. He kept it clean and got it waxed. He worked as a mortgage loan officer to make payments.

On June 24, 1999, he drove to a music store at 2855 66th St. N to buy a CD. His car may have attracted the attention of his killer.

A young man approached the car, shot Chanthavong and then went joyriding until the Acura hit a parked car.

Chanthavong was 22, a St. Petersburg High graduate from a traditional Thai family. Police think someone saw the killer and are hoping witnesses may yet come forward.

"We know for a fact that individuals saw the kid driving the car in the neighborhood after the carjacking," said Sgt. Mike Kovacsev, the head of the department's homicide unit.

The only description of the carjacker that emerged from the investigation was that people had seen a black male teenager driving Chanthavong's Acura.

Meanwhile, Chanthavong's family has offered a reward for information that leads to an arrest while they wait for some closure. Last year, the family increased the reward from $15,000 to $20,000.

"I hope somebody comes forward," said his mother, Sompong Chanthavong, 53. "I still pray."

Lawrence H. Ricker

After a long and distinguished career as a psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida, Lawrence H. Ricker settled into a quiet retirement. He enjoyed doing crossword puzzles and dining with his family.

On March 28, 2006, Ricker, 83, was beaten to death in his home. Then the killer torched the dwelling at 4160 14th St. N.

After the crime, police released a composite sketch of a man of uncertain race who had asked a neighbor about a lost dog, claiming his name was "John." The man gave the neighbor a nonworking telephone number and was riding a men's blue bicycle, police said.

Police want to talk to the man, and are still hoping to learn his whereabouts from someone who knows him.

Like the other unsolved cases, the investigation into Ricker's slaying stalled. Police are still investigating, but they are asking for help.

"I just would like to know who and why," said Lauren Connor, 51, Ricker's daughter. "It drives me crazy ... It's very frustrating."

Freddie Lee White

He could cook ribs so well that Freddie Lee White's buddies nicknamed him "Chef Bones." While working as a cook at the Salvation Army and Senior Meadows Retirement Centers, he managed to get a new catering service up and running.

His wife, Rose, now 64, says he had such a big heart that he would open the door to strangers. On Nov. 28, 1998, police went to his home and found White, 51, beaten to death. He lived at 920 10th Ave. S, and months later someone set fire to the house.

The investigation stalled. White's case was eventually classified as a "cold case" instead of an unsolved homicide because of the dearth of leads and tips. There's nothing cold about the case for White's family.

"We're afraid to live ourselves," said his sister Willie White, now 58. "I can't sleep at night."

White was married to Rose for 27 years. She still wonders why someone would want to hurt her husband.

"I don't understand how a person can have a conscience, do that and then not come forward," she said.

Ronald Williams

Ronald Williams, 46, was the head salesman at Old Time Roofing, a St. Petersburg business owned by his brother. He was a family man with a wife and three children.

On May 14, 2006, his wife, Mary, opened the front door of their home at 6340 17th St. S. It was Mother's Day, a Sunday night, and she figured her eldest son had forgotten his keys.

Three men in black ski masks stormed inside and demanded money, police said. The men also asked about a safe. The family had one, though they kept little money inside it.

Mary screamed. Ronald came to help her. One of the men shot him and then ran with the other two.

Ronald Williams' family and friends adored him. A reward fund of $10,000 has been set up for information that leads to an arrest in his killing.

Police say the three attackers were young black males who wore ski masks and black clothes. Two of them carried sticks.

After the shooting, the investigation lagged. At a news conference held six months after the killing, a detective said law enforcement needed help from the community to make an arrest.

"I would have rather had them take my safe and every dime I had and not kill my husband," said Mary Williams, 47. "It's hard being married for 20 years and losing that person. ... We had one of those marriages that was going to last."

Fast Facts:

How to help

Anyone with information should call St. Petersburg police at 893-7164 or Crimestoppers toll-free at 1-800-873-8477.

Anyone who wants to help the family of Ronald Williams can donate to:

Ron Williams Memorial Fund, c/o Bank of Florida Tampa Bay, 777 S Harbour Drive, Suite 125, Tampa, FL 33602

Learn more

The St. Petersburg Police Department has a list of unsolved homicides at www.stpete.org/police/unsolved_homicides.htm.