Murder suspect found dead

Robert Maniatis' apparent drug overdose came as authorities sought to connect him to a homicide.

By ELENA LESLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2007

Police were zeroing in on 20-year-old Robert Maniatis.

Tarpon Springs authorities wanted to question him about a murder. Pasco County sheriff's deputies believed he was responsible for a number of shootings in his neighborhood, Holiday Lake Estates.

"The noose was closing tightly on his circle," said Pasco Sheriff spokesman Doug Tobin.

On Wednesday afternoon, authorities found Maniatis' body in a room at the Tahitian Resort in Holiday, dead of an apparent overdose.

Those who knew Maniatis said his end wasn't unexpected.

For months, residents in Holiday Lake Estates warned authorities that Maniatis would end up "six feet under or in jail," said neighbor Margarita Giatras.

Maniatis, who long had a reputation for being troubled, started shooting up the neighborhood where he was raised around two months ago, Giatras said.

Then, after a 25-year-old man was found dead in Tarpon Springs on Monday night, local police announced that Maniatis was a person of interest.

Maniatis' death hit Giatras and her son, Alex, Wednesday with a rush of conflicting emotions. They knew they could sleep better at night without fear of Maniatis' stray bullets. But they couldn't help mourning for a man they'd known nearly his whole life.

The boys in Holiday Lake Estates - "HLE Boys," as they called themselves - were a tight group of friends. Maniatis used to come over to the Giatras' house for video games, sleepovers and refrigerator raids.

But even then, Margarita Giatras said she sensed something was wrong.

By 12, Maniatis had his first brush with the law when the Pasco County Sheriff's Office charged him with possession of a weapon on school premises.

Then, according to official records, he graduated to burglary, larceny and aggravated assault.

In 2004, he was a key witness in the trial of Randolph Wang, who was sentenced to two life terms in prison.

Maniatis and two friends had met Wang in the Holiday Publix parking lot to buy marijuana. When the deal went bad, Wang shot at the other boys, wounding one and killing the other.

Maniatis escaped unscathed.

While Maniatis was always getting into trouble, a couple months ago something snapped, Giatras said. Her son and other neighborhood boys stopped associating with him.

And, they claim, he fired back.

"He was strapped like the army," said Alex Giatras, who claimed Maniatis had a revolving arsenal in his home - a high-powered rifle, two Mac 11 semiautomatic weapons, a .38-caliber special handgun.

Pasco County authorities logged six shooting incidents over the last five weeks on parallel streets in the subdivision.

Earlier this month, Maniatis was arrested after he authorities said he pointed a MAC 11 semiautomatic weapon at his neighbors. He was charged with aggravated assault, but made his $15,000 bond several days later and was released.

The shooting continued. Margarita Giatras said neighborhood kids found stray bullets in their yards. On Sunday, 15-year-old Nick White was grazed while knocking on his friend's door.

She said Pasco County authorities were slow to respond to the mayhem.

But Tobin said deputies had identified Maniatis as a main suspect in the shootings and were working to develop probable cause to arrest him. He said members of the community weren't very forthcoming with information.

"We needed solid evidence," he said. "You can't just go ahead and arrest someone."

After Michael Scott Steele, 25, of New Port Richey was found shot to death in Tarpon on Monday night, another law enforcement agency began hunting for Maniatis. An alert was issued by Tarpon police late Tuesday that he was a person of interest in the slaying and should be considered "armed and dangerous."

Now the investigation will continue without him, said Sgt. Barb Templeton.

Maniatis was found dead by friends who came to his hotel room around noon Wednesday. Tobin said it was unclear whether his overdose was intentional or accidental.

Throughout the afternoon, a small group of mourners milled outside the pink and aqua building, faces red from heat and tears. Every once in awhile, a deputy would escort those who knew Maniatis past the police tape and into the room where he was found.

Neighbors said the whole grisly scene could have been avoided if someone had paid attention sooner.

"We've been saying someone's going to be dead for two months," Alex Giatris said Wednesday before hearing of Maniatis' death. "Now look (at Steele) - a dead body."

Times staff writers Tamara El-Khoury and Thomas Lake contributed to this report.