Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Clearwater police make arrest in 1986 homicide, years after previous arrest was tossed

CLEARWATER — When Janet Staschak didn't show up at work two days in a row at the Kash n' Karry grocery store where she decorated cakes, her friends grew concerned.

They called the manager at York Apartments, the complex at 903 S Greenwood Ave. where 25-year-old Staschak lived. He called police. When officers arrived at Staschak's home that November day in 1986, they found her body on her bed.

She had been strangled and raped, Clearwater police said.

Days later, police accused her neighbor, Tom Franklin Sawyer, of killing Staschak, a brown-haired woman known to friends as "Space Monkey." During a 16-hour interrogation by Clearwater detectives, Sawyer confessed to killing her and went to jail.

But in a pretrial hearing in 1988, psychologists testified that Sawyer's confession was coerced. One said detectives used threats and lies about non-existent evidence to convince Sawyer that he murdered Staschak and didn't remember it because of his history of blackouts, the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1988.

A Pinellas judge threw out the confession, as well as a hair that police had submitted as evidence but couldn't prove was Sawyer's. The charges were dropped in 1990 after an appeals court agreed with the Pinellas judge.

"Somebody else out there did it. No doubt about it," Sawyer told the Times in 1990. "And they're getting away with it."

That changed Tuesday, when Clearwater detectives arrested Stephen Manning Lamont, a 57-year-old Alabama man, and charged him with first-degree murder.

Sawyer couldn't be reached for comment on the arrest.

The Clearwater Police Department has more than 20 unsolved homicides. Detectives regularly resubmit evidence from the cases to local, state and national DNA databases.

On Dec. 10, they submitted DNA from the Staschak case to the national database. On Jan. 2 they learned the DNA matched Lamont, who was previously convicted for robbery and served time in an Alabama prison from 1986 to 1998, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

But during his first year in prison, Lamont and four other inmates escaped. Lamont eluded authorities for a while, and while he was free, police say, he came to Clearwater.

Detectives traveled to Lamont's home in Montevallo, Ala., this week to question him about Staschak. He didn't kill her, he told detectives — he even denied being in Clearwater during that time period. But detectives reminded him that in 1987, he was arrested in Clearwater under his alias, Keith Minchew, on an unrelated charge.

Lamont then changed his story, police said, and admitted he did know Staschak but hadn't heard she was dead. Moments later, he altered his story again, this time saying he and Staschak dated for several weeks.

Lamont told the detectives he discovered her body before authorities did, and he moved her body and drove her 1982 Pontiac hatchback to Tampa International Airport.

As the interview continued, Lamont admitted that he killed Staschak, police said.

A Pennsylvania native, Staschak had moved to Clearwater shortly before her death, said her sister-in-law, Holly McDowell, who described her as a "loving, caring person."

McDowell said the arrest of Lamont was "surprising" for her family. "After all these years, you just kind of figure the guy got away, and they'll never catch him," she said.

"No matter how old these cold cases are, our detectives never stop investigating them," Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway said. "It's important to us to find these killers so the families can have some kind of closure."

Lamont is being held in Alabama while awaiting extradition.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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