PINELLAS PARK — Something went wrong outside the Waterin' Trough early Friday morning.
But exactly what happened after a Largo woman was thrown from a truck as it left the country-themed nightclub wasn't clear hours after the accident. Police were eyeing two men who left the area right after the woman died; neither has been charged.
Lauren Gifford was one of three women who rode in the bed of a Ford F150 at about 2:30 a.m. Friday as they left the Waterin' Trough at 12333 66th St. N, police said. The truck's driver, Russell Allan Clark, 24, pulled out of the club's gravel parking lot and apparently sped north on 66th Street.
After driving just a few hundred feet, the truck veered left, cut across the median, and headed toward the parking lot of a Race Trac gas station at the corner of 126th Avenue N. As the truck pulled into the lot, it ran over a curb, jolting the back passengers into the air and sending Gifford, 23, tumbling over the side.
Her head smacked the pavement. She died.
Clark, the two other women and a passenger in the truck's cab, Brett Koepke, 25, got out to check on Gifford after Clark stopped the truck, police said. Clark looked at the dead woman, then ran north.
Koepke hopped in the driver's seat and drove north on 66th Street, leaving the group behind, police said. Clark was seen running after the truck, yelling at Koepke to stop.
Traffic homicide detectives found Clark later Friday morning. They questioned him and took a sample of his blood for testing, police said.
The truck was later found parked in the 7000 block of 46th Avenue N, near Koepke's home, but police didn't find him there.
"We're just looking for him to talk to him to get his statement," said Pinellas Park police Capt. Sanfield Forseth. Authorities still had not found him late Friday.
No one has been charged. Police are awaiting toxicology results.
Both Clark and Koepke have lengthy criminal histories and have spent time in prison, records show.
Clark did four years after 2007 convictions for carjacking, grand theft and burglary, records show. He was released in 2011, but arrested in July 2012 on a charge of leaving an accident scene.
Koepke also was convicted in 2007 of burglary and trafficking in stolen property and served about four years, records show. He was released in 2012.
After the sun set Friday, Gifford's friends and family gathered at her mother's Largo home. Her brother, Matt Hane, greeted visitors as they made their way to the spot where Gifford died.
Hane, 34, spoke of his sister as a simple, outgoing girl with a sarcastic sense of humor. She worked as a desk attendant at a Holiday Inn Express, and enjoyed spending time with her three young nieces.
The family expected scores of friends to attend the vigil, Hane said. "The turnout will show how many friends she really had."
Times news researcher Natalie Watson and staff writers Laura C. Morel and Kameel Stanley contributed to this report.