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A body, a single shot, and a man's last words leave St. Petersburg police perplexed

ST. PETERSBURG — Police had all the pieces to Lucious Eugene Leonard Jr.'s death Monday night.

They just didn't know how they fit.

They had Leonard, 63, found dead next to the auto shop where he worked.

They had the weapon: a small, 9mm Derringer pistol found next to the body.

They had a witness, a friend who said he wasn't looking when the gunshot rang out. He ran to Leonard's side.

"I shot myself," Leonard said, the friend told police.

An hour later, Leonard was dead.

But the angle of the bullet perplexed police. Shot in the lower back, the slug went up through his vital organs, killing him.

So how could someone shoot himself from behind and from below?

Said St. Petersburg police Maj. Mike Kovacsev: "It was a little difficult to believe that he had shot himself."

• • •

Friends remembered Leonard on Tuesday at the shop where he worked, H&B Auto Repair at 901 16th St. S.

He was from Georgia. He was divorced, with two grown daughters. He probably has grandchildren, they think, but no one knew for sure. His family's still up there.

He was in the Army, where he learned how to fix heavy machinery. Then he went to work as a mechanic for the railroad. He also drove semitrailers across the country, they said.

There wasn't anything, it seemed, that Leonard couldn't do.

"You name it," said Clint Bevins, 49. "He could fix it."

Bevins said he's known Leonard for decades, that his friend worked as a mechanic at shops all over St. Petersburg.

Leonard had an address in Tampa, but friends said he was recently staying at the shop, in a small trailer on the side of the building to guard against the thieves who kept breaking in.

So the mechanics started using padlocks and chains. Leonard started carrying a gun.

"His hobby was work," Bevins said. "He didn't have time for anything else."

• • •

It took a few hours Tuesday, but police put the pieces together:

Leonard and his friend had just finished watching Monday night's Rays game on the TV inside the shop. Tampa Bay won 4-3 in extra innings. It was about 11 p.m.

Leonard was trying to lock the side door. The padlock is tricky, friends said. Leonard has a hard enough time seeing in the dark. He had his gun with him, a two-shot Derringer.

He had it tucked under his arm, police said, when he dropped it. The gun hit the ground and went off, shooting him from below — and from behind. He died at Bayfront Medical Center at 11:55 p.m.

Leonard must have been struggling with that tricky lock, his friends believe, when he dropped the gun.

Police ruled his death an accident after an autopsy. It took a while, said Kovacsev, to see how the evidence fit together.

"Because of the angle of the shot, it didn't make a whole lot of sense," he said. "But they confirmed that the most plausible story is that he dropped the firearm."

Leonard's friends were still in shock Tuesday.

"You never know how you're going to leave," Bevins said.

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

A body, a single shot, and a man's last words leave St. Petersburg police perplexed 05/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 1:09am]

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