Tip might heat up cold homicide case in Tampa

TAMPA — Attorney Ralph Fernandez accused Tampa police Tuesday of sitting for three years on a tip he claims would solve a 13-year-old murder case.

He even named the suspect in a court document. A judge quickly sealed that information, and police officials said the tip wasn't enough to support an arrest. Two cases hang in the balance.

One is the unsolved killing of 28-year-old Sara Rodriguez, a convenience store clerk shot in the head during the Aug. 18, 1995, robbery of the Farm Stores on W Hillsborough Avenue.

The other involves Ronald Tozzi, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to carjacking and aggravated assault on two law enforcement officers. He is serving a 25-year prison term but figures he could get time shaved off his sentence if police arrest the man he identified as Rodriguez's shooter.

Because of a 911 dispatch error, police weren't sent to the crime scene until 13 minutes after someone triggered the store's panic alarm. Blurry security camera images indicated only that the suspect was a man between 5-foot-10 and 6 feet in height.

Fernandez said his client is the only link to the murder suspect, and he's missing out on credit for substantial assistance because of police inaction.

"This is not a cold case," he said. "This is a frozen case."

Prosecutors and police officials dispute that contention.

Assistant State Attorney Kristen Over said Tozzi, 39, kept the alleged killer's identity quiet for 10 years, revealing it only when he faced prison time for hijacking a limousine and ramming it into police cruisers in July 2004.

Tampa Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Tozzi provided sketchy but useful information that opened up new leads for investigators. They do not have enough evidence to make an arrest, she said, but they are working on it.

"We actually have something at the lab right now being tested in this case," she said. "It's very much active."

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet ordered the lead detective in Rodriguez's case to court May 13 to update him on the status of the investigation and the usefulness of Tozzi's assistance.

How much that will help Tozzi's efforts for a reduced sentence remains to be seen.

Three years ago, Detective Henry Duran told Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Perry that Tozzi had provided valuable and reliable information.

Perry still sentenced Tozzi to 25 years in prison.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Tip might heat up cold homicide case in Tampa 04/15/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2008 11:45am]

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