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    Police hunt for hit-run suspect

    Police say a witness helped them determine who was driving a Jeep Cherokee the night it struck a bicyclist.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 15, 2001


    LARGO -- A warrant was issued Thursday for the arrest of a local restaurant owner suspected in a hit-and-run crash that killed a bicyclist last month.

    Largo police obtained a warrant Thursday afternoon that accuses Mark Wicks, the owner of the Red Lion restaurant in Indian Rocks Beach, of fleeing the scene of the May 18 crash that killed 39-year-old Stephen Gunter.

    Police say Wicks was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo near Belcher and Ulmerton roads that night when he plowed through a red light and struck Gunter, who died at Largo Medical Center 39 minutes after the crash.

    Police had not found Wicks as of Thursday night and believe he has fled the area. Investigators say he may be heading north to Canada, hoping to avoid prosecution.

    If he is caught, he will be charged with a second-degree felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death. Other charges also may be forthcoming, police said.

    Wicks' attorney, Jeffrey Brown, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    Police first considered Wicks as a suspect when an anonymous caller said Wicks had been spotted clearing out his garage the morning after the hit and run crash, then backing in a damaged maroon and gray Laredo.

    Investigators then determined a man matching Wicks' description had taken the damaged Laredo to a body shop in Daytona Beach. Police said Wicks told body shop employees he had struck a deer.

    Police learned that one of Wicks' top managers at the Red Lion, Sandra Brand, had leased the Laredo, but allowed Wicks to use it.

    Both she and Wicks obtained attorneys and declined to voluntarily talk with police, which made it difficult to determine if either was driving the night Gunter was killed, police said.

    But then two things happened.

    First, police found a witness who told them one important thing no other witness had up to that point: It had been a man driving the Laredo when Gunter was hit.

    Knowing that, State Attorney's Office prosecutors subpoenaed Brand on Monday. She told them Wicks had been behind the wheel the night Gunter was killed, police said.

    "She was able to provide significant amount of information that would place him behind the wheel at the time of the crash," said Largo police Detective Steve McMullen said.

    Police also determined during the investigation that Wicks has been using several aliases and had obtained driver's licenses in several names. Police aren't even sure he's an American citizen and suspect he was committing some sort of fraud.

    McMullen said Wicks left the area in early June, before the key witness came forward.

    McMullen said there was no way police could have prevented Wicks from leaving the area in early June. At that time, they had no probable cause to detain him. The detective knows Wicks is heading north because police have run his tag in three states, each sighting farther north. Wicks is believed to have relatives in Canada, McMullen said.

    "His trip was unplanned, pretty much spur of the moment," McMullen said. "He left the business, he didn't tell anyone before he left."

    Police in other states have had no reason to stop him because up until Thursday, there was no warrant for his arrest.

    McMullen said Brand is running the restaurant in Wicks' absence.

    To help

    Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Mark Wicks can call Largo police at 587-6730.

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