ST. PETERSBURG —Michael Cerone, 74, spent his final hours surrounded by friends and family after a hit-and-run driver slammed into his car just blocks from his home.
He had always been there for them. And as he lay in a hospital bed on life support, they wanted to be there for him.
"He was always the caregiver, always the one going to help," said niece Maria Cerone, 41. "I'm just glad that in the end, we could all be there for him."
Now they want justice.
Police said Lorenzo Jamar Marlene Lynch, a 19-year-old unlicensed driver, ran a red light and crashed his girlfriend's Mitsubishi into Cerone's Pontiac early Monday.
The force of the collision sent Cerone, who was not wearing a seat belt, flying out of the car.
Lynch ran, leaving a trail of blood at the scene, police said.
Cerone died Wednesday about 7:30 p.m. after being on life support since the 1 a.m. crash Monday. Family members said it was a joint decision to disconnect life support.
"Now they tell us we have to wait for this person who killed my uncle to be found," said Cerone's niece Gina McCall, 45.
But they're not waiting.
Cerone's family said they will do whatever they can to find Lynch and bring him to justice.
They even hired a banner plane to fly a message around St. Petersburg on Thursday: "Lorenzo Lynch: Fugitive on the run. Call police w/ info!"
Lynch, who is on probation for burglary, made brief contact with his family after the crash, police said. He told them he was hurt but would not seek treatment because he did not want to go back to prison.
Police spokesman Mike Puetz said interviews with Lynch's girlfriend and family members led them to conclude that there is "no question" he was driving the car. He is wanted on charges of leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury and driving with an invalid license while causing a serious injury crash.
Lynch has a lengthy criminal history back to age 13, when he was arrested for battery on a school employee, according to state records. He spent more than a year in prison at age 16 when he was sentenced as an adult for grand theft and burglary. He has violated probation at least three times since his 2008 conviction for two unrelated burglaries, Puetz said.
He has never had a driver's license.
Cerone's family said it hopes the plea from the skies encourages someone to come forward.
"You don't drive without a license, and you don't leave an elderly man lying on the ground to die,'' McCall said. "You just don't."
Cerone would never have done that, his family and friends said.
Described by many as giving and spiritual, Cerone involved himself with an eclectic array of people.
He studied with yoga master Swammi Satchidananda at a spiritual retreat in Virginia. A retired photographer, he took photos at New York Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa every year. He sang with local jazz musicians. He attended at least three different churches.
And in each community, those who knew him considered him family.
"When you talk about Michael's blood relatives, that's honestly the smallest part of his family," said niece Teresa Clovis, 47. "He had so many people that he's cared for."
The night of the accident, family members said, Cerone was driving to his apartment at 550 First Avenue S after spending the evening playing cards with an elderly cousin who was having trouble sleeping.
Although Cerone was among the oldest members of his family, relatives said it still felt as if his life was cut short.
"He may have been 74, but he was still so young," Clovis said. "He lived an amazing life."
Cerone will be celebrated by friends and family at an open service Friday at First Unity Church of St. Petersburg, at 460 46th Ave N.
He is survived by his son Michael Cerone Jr., 44, daughter-in-law Lori, 41, and grandchildren Nicholas, 20, and Lyle, 18.