LARGO — Laura Bickford never stopped believing the police would nab her sister's killer, not even when the investigation stretched on for a year, a decade, two decades.
On Wednesday, a jury convicted Tony Fantauzzi of first-degree murder for strangling Lisa Bickford in downtown St. Petersburg in 1987, and her teary-eyed sister felt thrilled.
"It just goes to show, it doesn't matter if it's two months ago or 24 years ago, because you can get justice," Laura Bickford, 44, said after the verdict.
Laura Bickford said she has talked to her late sister every day since the trial began last week. "I've told her I'm doing the best that I can, she's not forgotten … the only thing I can do is be here and make sure that everyone knows that she was important."
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger sentenced Fantauzzi to life in prison with no possibility of parole for the next 25 years, which were the sentencing guidelines in place at the time of his crime.
"Should you be mad it took 24 years to get here?" Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John asked jurors in her closing argument Wednesday afternoon. "Absolutely. Sure, be mad. But it doesn't mean he's not guilty. … It doesn't mean he didn't rape her and he didn't choke her to death."
Fantauzzi, now 50, balding and with a goatee, was tracked down in Georgia in 2008 after St. Petersburg police revived the murder from their cold case file. He hung his head but otherwise showed no emotion as the verdict was read Wednesday. Jurors took about two hours to reach their verdict.
Police had considered Fantauzzi a suspect from early on, but it wasn't until years later that DNA evidence allowed them to make the case against him.
Lisa Bickford, 19, who was petite with strawberry-blond hair, had gone out drinking with friends on Feb. 27, 1987, in downtown St. Petersburg. She broke her wrist in a scuffle with a motorcyclist outside a convenience store. She was trying to get medical treatment when she split off from the group with a male acquaintance, Fantauzzi.
She was found the next morning by a coffee shop owner who peered out a window overlooking Mills Plaza in the 200 block of Eighth Street S, and saw what appeared to be a mannequin.
St. John said evidence showed Bickford was raped. Her body was dirty and she had mulch in her mouth, indicating a struggle. Semen found inside her later was found to be a DNA match to Fantauzzi.
After Fantauzzi was initially interviewed by police, he changed his name and moved several times, St. John pointed out.
But Assistant Public Defender John Swisher said it was much more logical to believe that Fantauzzi and Lisa Bickford had consensual sex, which would have accounted for the DNA match. When she broke her wrist, Swisher said, "Tony is the one who came to her aid. … He's the one who walks her to the hospital."
When a detective interviewed Fantauzzi about the crime early on, he became emotional and seemed to be saying "that's right" as the officer described how Bickford may have been murdered. But that wasn't a confession, Swisher said. If it had been, he would have been arrested decades ago, he said.
Like a lot of little sisters, Lisa Bickford was spunky and stubborn and good at pushing her older sister's buttons, Laura Bickford said. The two fussed like sisters do. But the relationship never matured like it should have. The two never got the chance to grow older together, to meet at family reunions, to have special times over the years "where we talked about the past and we laughed instead of argued."
Murder prevented that, she said. Instead, Laura put her hopes in the justice system, visited her sister's grave regularly and told her she was not giving up.
"She would be proud of me," Laura said while waiting for the verdict. "I'm not all that tough a person. … I'm very emotional, I cry a lot. But she would be proud of me."
When Mike Kovacsev of the St. Petersburg Police Department showed up at her door in 2007 to let her know detectives had made a DNA match in the murder, she hugged him so hard "I almost knocked him off the steps," she said.
"This definitely was a very trying case and it was one of the most difficult to present, but it worked out in the end," said Kovacsev, who is a major at the department.
On Wednesday, after the trial ended, Bickford said she planned to head straight to Lisa's grave. She would walk through a cemetery so familiar that she wouldn't need lights to find the right spot. She had family members all over the country to call, but they would have to wait.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected]