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A casual encounter with St. Petersburg murder suspect at the scene of the crime

Murder suspect Thomas J. Lafoe rides by Jeffrey Norton’s home the day after Norton was found dead inside the house.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Murder suspect Thomas J. Lafoe rides by Jeffrey Norton’s home the day after Norton was found dead inside the house.

ST. PETERSBURG — Thomas Lafoe, grimy with wild gray hair, rode a bicycle casually down Third Street.

It was early Monday morning and police were investigating the death of a well-loved actor who lived nearby.

As people milled about, Lafoe stopped to chat.

"Everybody's pretty close in this neighborhood," he told a St. Petersburg Times reporter.

Days later, St. Petersburg police arrested Lafoe and charged him with murdering Jeffrey Norton, 55. Lafoe first denied it, then admitted some of it, then admitted all of it, police said. He used a heavy metal sword.

Norton was dead for at least 72 hours before anyone found him. Meanwhile, police said Lafoe used Norton's credit card to buy two pairs of shoes from Foot Locker. And back home, he told people he'd been fishing that weekend. He claimed to have knocked on Norton's door three times.

"Well, nobody told me Jeff's dead," he said Monday.

• • •

Lafoe is 57 and disabled. He lived alone at 333 43rd Ave. N, around the corner from Norton's tidy yellow bungalow.

His yard was covered in debris — a ceramic fountain, a bicycle, a lawn mower, old Halloween scarecrow decorations, an abandoned couch. A bottle of Jack Daniels sat in the window. He threw meat into the yard for his dogs.

He lived in Alabama and Massachusetts and was married to a woman who died, records show. He had a son with his same name.

Lafoe was a mechanic at a Shell gas station in Massachusetts and had a license to repair gas pipes and appliances.

In 2008, he was evicted from a St. Petersburg mobile home park. In his new neighborhood behind Chick-fil-A on Fourth Street, he collected cans and bags to recycle. He and a neighbor often salvaged random items from the trash and gave them away on a table outside.

He was known as the odd jobs guy, willing to fix a hot tub or mow a yard for cash.

He had been in Norton's house twice, he told a reporter — once last week to help install insulation. He had cut his grass for a year and a half, and once in the past few weeks. He claimed Norton still owed him money for the last cut.

Police say money was likely the motive.

Norton's friends had never heard of Lafoe. Norton's neighbors weren't in his social circle, which spanned the Tampa Bay acting community. He was one of the area's most highly regarded actors and was the theater manager of Shorecrest Preparatory School. He had the energy of a teenager. Tall and lanky, he bounded on stage fueled by coffee grounds covered in hot tap water.

He acted in dozens of local troupes and taught acting, movement and voice at the University of South Florida. He taught stage combat, most recently for a production of West Side Story at Shorecrest.

"He was an expert at the physical side of acting," said Lee Ahlin, music teacher at Shorecrest "These kids are not experts. They have these gangly teenage bodies. He was able to pull off the stage combat so realistically."

Police haven't found the sword used to kill Norton. But they say it probably was a prop he kept at home.

• • •

It's not unusual for a criminal to drop by his crime scene.

"As long as they feel safe that they did this without being detected, the secondary issue to them becomes, what efforts are being made to try and find out who did this," said police spokesman Mike Puetz, a homicide veteran. "I think that level of curiosity does push them to kind of hang out at the crime scene."

Most people don't like chit-chatting about gruesome neighborhood deaths with police and press. When they come back to the scene armed with a litany of excuses and stories, it's a red flag.

Monday, Lafoe spouted theories about Norton's green truck, which wasn't at the house. He made an offhand remark about Norton having been on vacation. He told a neighbor Norton had nearly been decapitated with a sharp object.

Norton's grass had sprouted since the last cut, Lafoe said. It must have been the rain.

"I'll probably cut it one more time," he said, "just to make it look nice in case his family comes."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

A casual encounter with St. Petersburg murder suspect at the scene of the crime 07/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 10:00am]
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