Fresh evidence backs old hunch in St. Petersburg murder case

ST. PETERSBURG — Twenty-one years ago, a coffee shop owner and her husband spotted a battered body under some trees downtown. The victim was a teenager named Lisa Bickford, her clothes torn from her body as she struggled for her life.

Police long suspected her killer was an acquaintance, Tony J. Fantauzzi, but they lacked the evidence to make a case. They even jailed him on unrelated charges in 2007 — but a bureaucratic error freed him.

This week, they found Fantauzzi again, living southeast of Atlanta, and were ready to move. Georgia deputies arrested him Wednesday on a first-degree murder warrant from Pinellas County.

Now 48, Fantauzzi will be extradited from Georgia. Police expect him to be back in Florida within a month.

The victim's sister, Laura Bickford, knew all along that they'd catch Fantauzzi again.

"I knew no matter where he went," she said, "we'd get him."

At 19, Lisa Bickford had already had a hard life. The Madeira Beach resident had given birth to a son, but at 6 months old he fell victim to sudden infant death syndrome.

On the last night of her life, Feb. 27, 1987, she went out drinking with some friends in downtown St. Petersburg. She broke her wrist in a scuffle with motorcyclist outside a convenience store.

Bickford was trying to get medical treatment when she split off from the group with a male acquaintance, Fantauzzi. She was supposed to meet her sister, Laura, and a friend so they could go to the hospital together. But she never showed up.

The next morning, coffee shop owner Wan-Ba Berquist spotted something strange from a window overlooking Mills Plaza, in the 200 block of Eighth Street S. It looked, Berquist said then, "like someone had just thrown a mannequin down."

Police determined that the dead woman had been attacked and dragged more than 100 feet. Despite the broken wrist, she fought hard against her attacker. She had been raped and strangled.

"My sister was a fighter her whole life," said Laura Bickford, a 42-year-old St. Petersburg resident who works at an insurance company. "She was tough. There was absolutely no way she was going to let anyone take from her what she wasn't going to give up."

Publicly, police said Fantauzzi was not a suspect. But two years later they put his name and face on local television stations in connection with the case, asking viewers to call in if they had seen him. Callers pointed them to his home in Lutz, and Fantauzzi was arrested on an unrelated theft charge.

Police had obtained DNA from semen found in the body, and now they took hair and saliva samples from Fantauzzi. But DNA technology wasn't sufficiently advanced then for a match, and without it they couldn't hold him.

In 2006, Lt. Mike Kovacsev took over the still-open case. Although he got a DNA match, he said, "the DNA part was just the beginning."

He had to track down all the witnesses who saw Fantauzzi with Bickford the night she was killed. None lived in Pinellas anymore. Some had died. Meanwhile, he tracked down Fantauzzi, now going by a different name.

"He knew that he was wanted," Kovacsev said. "That's why he kept changing his name. Even in Georgia he had multiple aliases."

When the detective found Fantauzzi, he had him arrested on old Hillsborough County warrants and brought to Tampa. Pinellas County prosecutors were on the verge of going to the grand jury, but before he could be indicted, Fantauzzi was allowed to plead to time served for violating his probation for dealing in stolen property and was released. It took Kovacsev a year to track him down again.

Although the arrest could bring the case to a close at last, it also brought fresh pain to the victim's sister as she remembered everything that's happened in the last two decades.

"The loss then was huge," she said. "It's even worse now that I realize how much I've missed by not having her in my life."

Times staff writer Kim Wilmath and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Fresh evidence backs old hunch in St. Petersburg murder case 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 1:56pm]

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