Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Support for gay marriage surges, even among groups once wary

    Human Interest

    NEW YORK — In the two years since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, support for it has surged even among groups that recently were broadly opposed, according to a new national survey.

    People gather in Washington's Lafayette Park to see the White House lit up in rainbow colors on June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage legal. In the two years since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, support for it has surged even among groups that recently were broadly opposed, according to a new national survey released on Monday, June 26, 2017. [Associated Press]
  2. Florida inspired new group focused on improving how elections are run

    Blogs

    A new group run by two lawyers and veteran Democratic operatives specializing in voter protection efforts is launching a pilot program in Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to work with local elections officials to improve the voting process. Access Democracy, run by …

    Access Democracy wants to improve voter participation and how elections are run
  3. Super Nintendo is coming back to stores, and there's even a new (old) game

    Blogs

    If the overwhelming success of last year's NES Classic is any indication, you may want to get your hands on Nintendo's newly-announced Super NES Classic as soon as it becomes available this fall.

    Super Nintendo plans to release the Super NES Classic Edition.
  4. Dave Andreychuk going into Hall of Fame

    Blogs

    For Dave Andreychuk, the wait is finally over.

    Dave Andreychuk helped lead the Lightning to its only Stanley Cup in 2004.
  5. UPDATE: Rays finalizing deal to get SS Hechavarria for 2 minor-leaguers

    Blogs

    Hechavarria is a two-time Gold Glove finalist who could help settle the Rays sometimes leaky infield defense.

    Adeiny Hechavarria is a two-time Gold Glove finalist who could help settle the Rays sometimes leaky infield defense.