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Family hopes for an answer

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- One year ago tonight, Tim Chanthavong walked out of a record store, got into his flashy sports car and was never seen alive again.

Police think a stranger killed him for the car, a red Acura NSX. His murder remains unsolved, and detectives have no leads. They're counting on one of the cardinal rules of homicide investigation: Somebody out there knows something.

Chanthavong's family is putting up a $5,000 reward, hoping that the money might shake loose some information.

"Why?" asks his mother. "Why did they have to kill my son?"

Sonphet "Tim" Chanthavong was a 22-year-old mortgage loan officer who loved cars. His gleaming red Acura was his pride and joy. He constantly washed and waxed it, fussed over it and worked to make the payments on it.

On the evening of June 24, 1999, he drove to Spec's Music at 2855 66th St. N and bought a Christina Aguilera CD because he liked her song, Genie in a Bottle. Police think his car caught the eye of someone with a gun. The gunman sized up Chanthavong -- short, skinny and shy -- and confronted him after he left the store.

The killer commandeered the car, shot Chanthavong eight blocks from the store and sped away on a joy ride that ended when the 1994 Acura hit a parked car across town.

Southeast Asian youth gangs have been linked to several violent attacks in St. Petersburg over the past year, leading to speculation that Chanthavong's killing was gang-related.

But the city's homicide investigators say Chanthavong wasn't involved in gangs or drugs. They think his death was random, a classic case of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"He lost his life over a 15-minute joy ride," said Cindra Leedy, the lead detective in the case.

Leedy and Chanthavong's parents, sister and best friend went Friday to 26th Avenue N and 60th Street, a quiet residential intersection where Chanthavong was shot. They announced the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his killer.

Other than a vague description of a man seen in the Acura, the trail is cold.

"We're standing here today with no good leads," Leedy said.

Twelve minutes after a jogger found Chanthavong bleeding in a driveway, the Acura jumped a curb and hit a car at 53rd Avenue S and Seventh Street.

Three witnesses there saw a young black man, possibly in his late teens to early 20s with low-cut hair, in Chanthavong's car. Police don't have a composite sketch of the man.

The description wasn't made public at the time because it was vague, and Leedy didn't want to discourage other people from calling with leads.

"We're hoping someone who may have had information a year ago will come forward now," she said.

Witnesses also saw the Acura race up and down 53rd Avenue S near Seventh Street twice before it crashed. "He (the suspect) was probably showing off the car," Leedy said.

Chanthavong graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1996. The middle child of three, he lived in the Kenwood neighborhood with his parents.

The family came to the United States when the children were little. Theirs is a traditional Thai household; people take off their shoes before they enter the house.

"I can hear my son's voice everywhere I go," said his mother, Sompong Chanthavong. "Timmy was an innocent, quiet person. He never bothered anybody."

Her son was shot about 8:50 p.m. Every night at that time, she looks at the clock and cries. She can't help it.

All his things -- clothes, cologne, baseball caps -- are still in the house. The Acura was in the garage until the family finally sold it three weeks ago. His mother went to the cemetery to tell him.

Chanthavong's friends remember him as funny, kind, generous.

"It would be a little bit easier if I knew Tim had enemies," said his best friend, 22-year-old Bruce Landes. "But he didn't. He was so caring and loving."

Former co-worker Andrea Dixon recalls Chanthavong leafing through car magazines at work, checking out tire rims for his Acura.

"He babied that car, he sacrificed for that car," she said. "I guess it might have been hard for him, with his nationality. That was his way of fitting in. He had that car."

Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Cindra Leedy at 893-7613 or, to remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS.

- Times staff writer Leanora Minai contributed to this report.

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