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Two years after death, a killer remains free

"I know somebody saw what happened,'' says the mother of a young man likely killed for his sports car. But there are no leads.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2001


"I know somebody saw what happened," says the mother of a young man likely killed for his sports car. But there are no leads. "I know somebody saw what happened," says the mother of a young man likely killed for his sports car. But there are no leads.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Two years 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. Police detectives are counting on one of the cardinal rules of homicide investigation: Somebody out there knows something.

Chanthavong's family put up a $5,000 reward, hoping the money might shake loose some information. But that was a year ago, and detectives still have no leads.

"Two years and we don't know anything," said his mother, Sompong Chanthavong. "I know somebody saw what happened. I don't understand why everybody kept quiet. I know my son's not coming back, but somebody needs to punish the killer."

Sonphet "Tim" Chanthavong was a 22-year-old mortgage loan officer who loved cars. His gleaming red 1994 Acura was his pride and joy. He constantly washed and waxed it, fussed over it, 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 joyride that ended when the Acura hit a parked car across town.

Police say Chanthavong was not involved in gangs or drugs. They think his death was random, a classic case of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"We have no new leads. Nothing has panned out on it," said Cindra Leedy, the lead detective in the case.

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

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 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.

Witnesses also saw the Acura race up and down 53rd Avenue S near Seventh Street twice before it crashed.

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

All of Chanthavong's things -- clothes, cologne, baseball caps -- are still in the house. His mother can't bear to get rid of them.

Chanthavong graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1996. Whenever his mother wants to feel closer to him, she watches a videotape from his graduation day. On the tape, her son is smiling and talking to his friends.

"I miss my son a lot," she said. "Timmy never bothered anybody."

Tonight, relatives will take flowers to Chanthavong's grave. They'll talk to him. And they'll wonder whether they'll ever have good news for him -- news of his killer's arrest.

-- Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Cindra Leedy at 893-7613 or, to remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers at (800) 873-TIPS (873-8477).

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