ST. PETERSBURG — An escaped Florida prisoner is responsible for the murders of two men found dead in a mysterious house fire in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood, police said Thursday.
Michael Scott Norris, a felon with an extensive criminal record, faces first-degree murder charges, police said.
Detectives say Norris, 36, shot and killed Bruce Johnson, 51, of St. Petersburg and Arthur Regula, 36, of Hudson, then set fire to the home Sunday afternoon to cover it up. The men were doing work on the home at the time.
"Initially we didn't have a whole lot," said Maj. Mike Kovacsev. "Slowly, we were able to piece things together."
Police said Norris left Sunday morning from the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center at 16432 U.S. 19 N. He was supposed to go to work at Jonny Reno's at the Pier in St. Petersburg, where he got a dishwashing job a few weeks ago through work-release.
Instead, he went to the Driftwood Motel at 1600 34th St. S. Norris broke into an apartment of an ex-girlfriend and walked out with a Glock semi-automatic handgun, police said.
Police believe he then went to the brown bungalow at 2635 Fourth Ave. N in Kenwood.
"I don't know why he picked that location," Kovacsev said. "We don't have any correlation between him and the victims."
The next day, police said, Norris ditched and torched Regula's truck, which had been missing from the scene, behind a CVS Pharmacy in Tampa. Investigators found items from the Kenwood home inside.
At that point, police still hadn't developed Norris as a suspect in the murder. But they were close.
On Tuesday afternoon, Kovacsev said, investigators sifting through the burnt house found a clue. "He left an item behind," Kovacsev said. "I'm not going to say what."
Hours later, Norris turned himself in at the Pinellas County Jail. He was booked on escape and armed burglary charges. Detectives interviewed Norris, who was cooperative but didn't confess to the murders.
Investigators kept working on the case as Norris was held without bail. By Thursday, detectives felt confident enough to charge Norris with murder.
Police said Johnson, an interior designer, had been staying at the home with the owner, a close friend. Regula, who lived in Hudson, was a tile tradesman, police said.
Johnson's family said the past few days have been difficult.
"I didn't know what to do, or what end to turn," said Robert Johnson, 82, of Treasure Island, who last spoke to his son Saturday night. "I just think it's great that they got him as quick they did."
The re-entry facility where Norris had been living is run by Goodwill Industries, which has a contract from the state. Officials there would not discuss the case.
"All I can tell you is that Goodwill is shocked and distressed, and that this incident is unprecedented in the 45 years we've been running work-release programs," said Michael Ann Harvey, a spokeswoman for the organization.
Norris was sentenced to prison in 2004 on multiple charges, including armed burglary, and was scheduled to be released in December. He had been placed in the Goodwill facility to help him transition back into society. He was allowed to leave the facility for work.
Jonny Reno's owner, Jon La Budde, said Norris was a good employee who was looking forward to his sentence ending and pledged his life of crime was over.
"There's some other factor involved here, whether it's maybe a mental breakdown or drugs," La Budde said. "None of this makes any sense."
Investigators are still looking for witnesses who can help trace Norris' path earlier this week. They are especially interested in the 24 hours after the murders.
Anyone with information was asked to contact police at (727) 893-7780, the anonymous tip line at (727) 892-5000 or by texting (727) 420-8911.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Erin Sullivan contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.