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    Carjacking victim not known for giving in

    Police still seek the man who killed Deborah Fleischner after she fought him while he was stealing her car.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

    Carjacking victim Deborah Fleischner, above, "always fought for everything," her sister says. Fleischner was shot and killed Thursday in Gulfport by a suspect sought by police. Authorities have issued a composite sketch of the suspect, below.

    GULFPORT -- Even her sister described Deborah Fleischner as strong-willed.

    "She's just always fought for everything," said Hilary Scott, Fleischner's 54-year-old sister.

    That determination was evident Thursday as she fought a man who ultimately shot her to death outside a McDonald's.

    Three times, witnesses said, the man knocked her to the pavement. Three times, she jumped up and resumed battle.

    "I told her to give him whatever he wants," said 64-year-old Fred Birchenough, who ran to help. "I don't know if she was listening."

    The search for Fleischner's killer continued Friday as Gulfport and Clearwater police and the FBI checked out scores of leads from the public, including a tip that he took a flight from Tampa to Detroit.

    Investigators also released a composite sketch of the unidentified suspect.

    "We want this guy," Gulfport police Lt. Patrick Patterson said.

    After the 5:50 p.m. shooting, investigators recovered Fleischner's 2000 Hyundai Accent about 16 miles away at a Clearwater apartment complex. An anonymous resident called police at 7:41 p.m. to report a car with blood on it.

    About 15 officers opened trash bins and checked nearby businesses and apartments but did not find the suspect or a gun.

    Police do not think Fleischner knew the gunman, described as a white male in his 20s with blond hair and a floppy hat with a small brim.

    Fleischner, who was 50, was born on an Air Force base and lived on seven others. She attended a year of nursing school.

    In the mid 1990s, Fleischner moved to the Tampa Bay area for its beaches. She got married, then divorced.

    She had an independent spirit and passed her time riding her bicycle along the Pinellas Trail and painting watercolors of ocean scenes. She died well-off, with $450,000 in brokerage accounts and a condominium in South Pasadena.

    "We were each other's friend (as children) because we moved around so much," said Scott, her sister. "Every time we moved, at least we had each other. We played dolls. We rode bikes. I was the big sister who got in trouble if I wasn't watching her outside."

    Growing up, Fleischner was close to her mother, Bertha -- so close she called her Bertie.

    "They were more like sisters than mom and daughter," her sister said.

    When her mother died with lung cancer 24 years ago, Fleischner and her sister grew apart. Fleischner thought her sister should have been around more to help her mother, but she was pregnant and raising a family in Hawaii.

    "She kind of blamed me," Scott said.

    Before moving to the Tampa Bay area, Fleischner lived in Dallas so she could be close to her father. She worked in data entry for a computer company, but in the early '90s, wanderlust struck. She yearned to live near the water, like her mother once did.

    Against her father's wishes, she packed up and moved to Clearwater.

    She had her share of troubles, finding jobs with temporary agencies and making ends meet. She pleaded guilty in December 1998 to shoplifting two cans of baked beans, hoagie rolls, cheddar cheese and rice pudding from a Clearwater Publix.

    "It's the holidays," she told the arresting officer, according to a police report. "I'm going through bad times. I made a mistake. I'll pay for the food. I'll pay double."

    Her sister said the arrest was out of character.

    A month later, Fleischner met Harvey Alan Weisenfeld, an American Express financial planner. He was at Clearwater Mall, staffing a trade show booth.

    "She was inquisitive about what American Express had to offer," he said. "We exchanged phone numbers and started dating."

    They swam at the beach, watched movies. She also did her own thing -- working a short time for Rabbi Jacob Luski at Congregation B'Nai Israel and volunteering at area art shows.

    After her father died in June 1999, Fleischner and her sister inherited his life savings. Two months later, Fleischner and Weisenfeld married.

    Her spirited nature was still in evidence.

    One day at the mall, she asked a jeweler to appraise a diamond ring of her mother's.

    "Apparently, he didn't think it was worth very much," said Weisenfeld, 51. "She got really insulted and blasted him verbally and steamed out the store."

    That same spirit may have cost Fleischner her life Thursday.

    She ate dinner at the McDonald's at 5111 Gulfport Blvd. Just before 6 p.m., she walked out of the restaurant in front of Gladys and Jerry Porter. A gracious man held the door.

    "Y'all have a good evening," he said.

    They walked to their cars.

    "She was parked further down in the parking lot than we were," said Mrs. Porter, 76.

    Suddenly, screams rang out.

    "We looked over there and a guy was trying to pull her out of the car," Mrs. Porter said.

    The man got behind the wheel.

    "He'd push her and she'd fall down and then she'd be right back up clawing at him," Mrs. Porter said.

    Her husband and another man, Birchenough, ran across the parking lot. Fleischner wouldn't give up her purse. She tugged until the strap broke off the bag.

    "Let the car go! Let the car go!" Birchenough shouted.

    The gunman fired three times.

    Rick Yarrington was working across the street in his golf shop and heard the shots. He ran to the parking lot. He said a prayer over Fleischner.

    "There was just no life in her," said Yarrington, 45. "I saw her eyes open and unseeing. She was just lifeless. It immediately made me think of her family and who she was. It's just an unnecessary tragedy."

    The shooting left witnesses and Gulfport residents shaken. Residents recalled a murder in 1992 when a 29-year-old woman was shot while she drove to her parents' house. She was shot around the same area of the McDonalds -- on 52nd Street S and Gulfport Boulevard.

    "It's just a shame these things happen," said Mrs. Porter, one of the witnesses. "You almost want to stay home and not go anywhere."

    - Researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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