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Teen still missing from Gandy
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Heather Ligon, girlfriend of Carlos Monti, who fell from the old Gandy Bridge early Monday, weeps as her mother, Doreene, talks with officials. After a 12-hour search involving five agencies, Monti has not been found.
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]

The search is called off after 12 hours, and rescuers say they must wait for answers about the teen.

By OLIVIA CLARKE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 1999


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Carlos Monti, 18, took lessons, but wasn't a strong swimmer, his stepfather says.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The old span of the Gandy Bridge was a hangout for Carlos Monti and his friends, a place to pass the time or listen to favorite songs played on the guitar.

But Tuesday, Monti's young friends gathered at the span for a different reason: to await word on the fate of their friend.

Monti, 18, has been missing since early Monday after falling into Tampa Bay. A 12-hour search Monday turned up no clues.

Monti and Marc Robins were with friends when they decided to leave the group and go exploring on the catwalk of the old span of the bridge. This fishing catwalk was temporarily closed and, according to a sign, off limits to the public while repairs were being made on it.

When Monti fell in the water about 1 a.m., Robins jumped in to try to rescue him, police said. But Robins, 18, was unable to hold onto Monti, who began to panic in the water, said Lt. Chris Bengivengo of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. Robins swam to South Gandy Beach about 3 a.m. and called police for help.

According to the 911 police report, two other friends stayed in a car and waited an hour for Monti and Robins before driving to the south side of the bridge to look for them. They used the restroom at a gas station before returning to the original meeting area. They were about to call police when Robins returned.

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Laura Donovan, mother of Carlos Monti, and Jan Robins, mother of Marc Robins, who tried to save his friend, walk Monday on the old Gandy Bridge. Donovan found out her son was missing at 5 a.m. [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Bengivengo said Robins and Monti encountered a strong tide that carried them both out to the 300- or 400-yard marker south of the bridge. About 11:30 a.m. Monday, officials found Robins' shorts and tennis shoes and Monti's hat between the Gandy Bridge and the Howard Frankland Bridge. The teens discarded their clothes so they could move more easily through the water, officials said.

The Coast Guard coordinated the 12-hour search with help from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Pinellas County Fire and Rescue, St. Petersburg Police Marine units and the Coast Guard auxiliary. About six vessels and 30 rescuers were used to search from Gandy Bridge to the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The search was called off about 3 p.m. Officials did not say when they might resume the search.

Throughout the cloudy morning, friends and family gathered near the catwalk, holding on to each other for support and waiting for answers.

Monti is a likable person, his friends and family say, a B student at Northeast High School who has a green belt in Hapkido and is athletic. He is an only child who enjoys '60s music and has dreams of entering the military after he finishes his senior year.

Marc Donovan, Monti's stepfather, said Monti had recently taken a swimming class at school. The last time they swam together, Donovan said, "he needed a lot of work."

Monti's family received a call at 5 a.m. that their son was missing. Donovan said Monti had a midnight curfew that they did not enforce. Donovan said he and his wife, Laura, rented a plane and flew over the water in hopes of finding their son.

"We knew they came to hang out here," he said. "Usually they come to hang out at our house, but tonight was an exception .?.?. He is really a good kid and does what he is told most times. At 5 a.m. we found out, and we were shocked. We came right out here and (police) had already been there since 3."

Jan Lesperance said her son Greg, 17, was there Sunday night with the other teenagers but left before Monti and Robins fell in the water. Lesperance said all the teens had pagers and cellular phones and always checked in. Lesperance said her son said no one was drinking.

"This is the first time anyone has been on the catwalk because they are usually on the grass," she said. "They have never been in trouble, and you couldn't complain about them."

Laurie Friedman's daughter, 17-year-old Shannon Peterson, was there during the incident. She said Peterson and another friend waited in the car with the radio on for Robins and Monti to return.

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Marc Robins, 18, tried to save Carlos Monti, but couldn't hold him when Monti began to panic.
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
"The boys were out on the catwalk exploring when Carlos slipped and fell in," she said. "He said he would swim to the pilings, and Mark said he would get him. It took Mark two hours to get back, and he lost Carlos. He couldn't find him."

Bengivengo of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue said each hour that they do not find Monti makes it a more grim situation. He said police and fire officials have exhausted all means of searching and must now wait for answers.

Tara Saccucci, 17, and her friends are not going to settle for that. They plan to hand out fliers with Monti's picture to homes along Gandy Beach. Saccucci said she feels so hopeless and wants to help find her friend, whom she has known since sixth grade.

"I think we are basically shocked," she said. "Now everyone is losing all hope .?.?. He's one of the most outgoing people. He's strong and the most kind and generous. I don't understand how this happened."

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