TARPON SPRINGS — Marco Velez had an aversion to cars.
His mother had died after being hit by a car. Velez had survived being struck by car while walking in New Jersey.
So he walked rather than drove the four blocks from his small Clearwater apartment on Mars Avenue to his job at Alan and Michelle's Monkey Bar on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
"He's never driven a day of his life. He's got a phobia of cars," said his cousin, Crystal Grace of Clearwater. "It freaks him out when he hears about car accidents."
But Velez died in a spectacular car crash on March 1 when a silver Mercedes he was a passenger in vaulted off U.S. 19 and plunged into a retention pond, Tarpon Springs police said.
According to police, about 3 a.m. an officer heard a loud boom and rushed to the area of U.S. 19 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The officer found power poles and live power lines scattered on the highway.
An employee from a nearby McDonald's approached the officer and said that he had seen a white car driving north on U.S. 19. He had seen the Mercedes fly through the air, over a 6-foot fence and into the pond on the east side of the road.
Investigators found the driver, Nicholas Ray Osborn, 37, on the road near one of the fallen poles with power lines on his body. He was dead.
A dive team later located Velez's body buckled into the passenger seat of the submerged Mercedes.
Investigators believe the white car seen heading north on U.S. 19 was racing with the Mercedes.
While detectives continue to investigate the crash, Velez's family is trying to cope with his loss.
About two years ago, Velez, 39, was living in West New York, N.J. But after his mother's death and the loss of his job at a horse betting company where he had worked for about 15 years, Velez decided to move to Clearwater to be close to relatives here, Grace said.
"He was looking for comfort," said Paola Ascani, a New Jersey friend.
An avid singer and songwriter, Velez found work as a bartender at the Monkey Bar in Clearwater and rented an apartment. At the bar, Velez was dedicated to his work, said coworker Michelle Hulbert.
"Awesome person," she said. "Everyone loved him, and he was family."
So when Velez didn't show up for work March 1, Grace grew worried. She visited his apartment, but he wasn't home. She called local hospitals and the jail. The following day, she filed a missing persons report with the Clearwater Police Department, she said.
Her stepfather mentioned the fatal car wreck in Tarpon Springs. The bodies were not identified at the time, but Grace said she refused to believe her cousin was one of the victims.
Within 20 minutes of filing the missing persons report, she learned from a police officer that Velez had died in the crash.
"Me and Marco were very, very close," Grace said. "He was like a brother to me, as well as a best friend."
Grace said that Velez had hung out with the Mercedes driver, Osborn, in the past.
"Marco was a very friendly person. He made friends pretty quickly," Ascani said. "It was just a crazy life choice."
Anyone with information on the crash is asked to call Tarpon Springs police Sgt. Frank Ruggiero at (727) 938-2849.
Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.