INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Pinellas County sheriff's detectives went to New York last week to question the boyfriend of police cadet Kelly Rothwell about her disappearance in March.
But David Perry refused to talk.
Now that refusal, as well as other behavior that detectives consider suspicious, has prompted the Sheriff's Office to publicly label Perry the prime suspect in Rothwell's disappearance.
The Sheriff's Office also said that Rothwell, 35, is not just missing — she is presumed dead. Her disappearance is turning into a homicide investigation, detectives said.
Members of Rothwell's family told sheriff's detectives that she had planned to end her volatile relationship with Perry and move out of their Indian Rocks Beach apartment.
Perry fled to Elmira, N.Y., the night Rothwell was reported missing by friends in Florida, detectives said. He has repeatedly ignored detectives' requests to interview him. And he began a relationship with another woman shortly after Rothwell disappeared, detectives said, further fueling their suspicions.
So they went to see him at the Elmira police station, where Perry went to sign paperwork to have an impounded vehicle released.
"In seeing us, he became extremely unnerved and basically fled the police station," said Michael Bailey, one of two sheriff's detectives who went to Elmira.
In May, Perry was accused of larceny and insurance fraud by New York state police, who said Perry fabricated an injury in 2003 to obtain disability retirement as a state corrections officer at the Elmira Correctional Facility.
No charges have been filed against Perry in Rothwell's disappearance. Until Tuesday, sheriff's detectives had called Perry a "person of interest'' and a witness in the case. They refused to discuss evidence they say they have gathered against Perry that might explain why they changed their view of his role in the case.
Detective Amy Plourde said naming Perry a suspect moves the case closer to a homicide investigation. "It's the next step," she said. "We believe this has criminal circumstances that surround it."
Law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area generally avoid labeling someone a suspect until an arrest is imminent. Instead, they use "person of interest,'' a term some consider a euphemism.
"If it's a suspect and you say 'person of interest,' you're using the euphemism to avoid problems down the line," Jim Kouri, then a spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police, told the American Journalism Review in 2006. "You don't want the guy to lawyer up."
But legal experts understand why Perry has refused to speak.
Kym Rivellini, a Clearwater defense attorney, said there is not much incentive for a client to speak to police. She said it's unlikely that law enforcement would stop its investigation, even if someone like Perry offered a reasonable story.
"The only thing police want to hear is that he did it or had some involvement with it," Rivellini said.
Deputies ask that anyone with information about the couple or Perry call Pinellas County Sheriff's Office homicide Detectives Bailey and Plourde at (727) 582-6200.