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    Search ends for Tampa pilot missing in gulf

    The attorney's briefcase and wallet have been found, but authorities presume that he is dead.

    By AMY HERDY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    TAMPA -- The Coast Guard has ended its search for a Tampa attorney who is presumed dead after the small plane he was piloting crashed Saturday off the coast of Gulfport, Miss.

    Lawrence Keith Stephens, 41, was flying to Beaumont, Texas, to visit his twin 10-year-old daughters for their birthday when his 1976 Piper Lance disappeared from the radar of the Gulfport airport.

    "All of a sudden he just fell off the screen," said Tom Snow of the Tampa firm Carlton Fields, where Stephens specialized in patent law.

    Although only his briefcase and wallet have been found, Snow said, Stephens is presumed dead since the depth of water where his plane hit was a mere 11 feet.

    A talented and energetic man, Snow said, Stephens possessed "enormous energy" and amazed his co-workers at both the Tampa firm and its office in San Jose, Calif. His sudden death, he said, is hard to believe.

    "It just has everybody stunned," he said. "A lot of tears."

    Snow said Stephens had been looking forward to visiting his daughters from a previous marriage. A licensed pilot for at least eight years, Stephens lived in South Tampa with his wife, Elicia Ruilova. She traveled to Gulfport over the weekend for the search for her husband's body.

    In Gulfport, Coast Guard Petty Officer Sean Mcmahon said the search for Stephen's plane began the moment it was reported missing by the Gulfport airport tower, about 2:40 p.m. Saturday.

    Heavy thunderstorms, high winds and an overcast sky in the area that day made visibility poor, Mcmahon said.

    Mcmahon said Coast Guard ships and helicopters, aided by volunteer fishing boats, combed the area until the search was called off early Monday morning. It is not expected to resume, he said.

    Snow said Stephens, who began working at Carlton Fields in mid summer, was a brilliant attorney who impressed clients with his patent strategies.

    He began his career as a systems programmer for IBM, where he worked as an inventor while attending law school at night.

    Stephens received his law degree from the University of Santa Clara School of Law in 1990 and was a member of the Bar in California and Texas.

    He had just taken the Bar exam for Florida last Tuesday and Wednesday, Snow said.

    -- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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