Sunday, February 25, 2018
Public safety

Man charged with first-degree murder in death of his girlfriend in Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — The pounding at Felix Rivera's front door came from the darkness early Saturday morning.

Then came the screams.

"I killed her," a voice shrieked from outside. "I killed her."

Rivera opened the door and found his friend Luis Antonio Santiago standing in front of him. He smelled of booze. Tears streamed from his eyes. Blood ran from his forehead.

Santiago, 48, had finally done it, Rivera said his friend told him — he had murdered the woman he loved, 36-year-old Belinda Joyce Thomas. He had been despondent for weeks because he suspected she was cheating on him. Santiago said he couldn't take it any longer, so he killed her. He repeated it over and over, but didn't say how.

Rivera refused to believe him. He drove to the house Santiago and Thomas shared at 8479 60th St. N. Two blocks south, he saw Thomas' Dodge sedan parked in the road and surrounded by police.

Thomas' body, covered in a white sheet, was wedged beneath it.

The single mother's three children, all elementary school age, stood on the sidewalk. Pointing. Sobbing. Shouting her name.

Minutes earlier, Santiago and Thomas had gotten into an argument that turned violent, according to Pinellas Park police. A chair was broken and a window shattered. She and her kids had run out of the house. Santiago, police said, got into the car and chased her. Twenty feet from the friend's door, they said, he slammed into his girlfriend.

Investigators say he then ran away.

Thomas' two daughters and son, her family says, watched her die.

• • •

It didn't start like this.

The couple began dating about a year ago. Santiago was 12 years older than Thomas, but it didn't seem to matter. They were happy. They smiled together at friends' barbecues. They took her kids to the park and the St. Petersburg Pier. They shared dinners at Red Lobster.

Before the two began dating, Rivera said, Santiago had gotten about $14,000 in retirement money from his years working at Publix. Much of that, Rivera said, he spent on Thomas and her children.

He paid for family trips to Orlando and bought Thomas jewelry, Rivera said. He bought new tile for her floor and new clothes for her kids.

This summer, something changed.

Santiago told Rivera he believed Thomas had taken advantage of him. He suspected she was interested in another man. She kicked him out nearly every day. He seemed consumed by depression. Rivera said the police were called, but Santiago was never arrested.

He'd had problems like this before. Court records show Santiago's past includes trespassing and DUI charges. His most recent arrest was for domestic battery in 2010. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation.

Santiago's family and friends say he was a good man, but a bad drunk. Alcohol made him mean. It made him crazy.

Two months ago, Rivera said, Santiago spotted a cable wire attached to the back of the couple's house and wrapped it around his neck. When Rivera found him, his face had already turned blue.

Rivera, 50, said his friend was committed to a hospital for mental evaluation under the Baker Act.

Santiago's relationship with Thomas only worsened.

Friday afternoon, Rivera said, Santiago told him he had caught her talking to another man on the phone. Rivera begged him to get a hotel room for the night.

"This," Rivera told him, "is going to end up ugly."

• • •

Rivera tried to talk to police at the crime scene. He said they wouldn't give him any information and ordered him to leave. When he got home early Saturday morning, still before sunrise, Santiago was gone.

At 6 a.m., the Pinellas Park police SWAT team descended on Rivera's neighborhood. Rivera lives across the street from Santiago's sister.

That's where he said police caught Santiago, outside his sister's home.

His nephew, 13-year-old Omar Santiago, looked out the window and saw his uncle sprawled across the grass in handcuffs.

Before the officers shocked Santiago with a Taser, the nephew said, his uncle had tried to slit his own throat.

Santiago was charged with first-degree murder and booked into the Pinellas County Jail, where he was being held without bond.

Thomas' family members said they were caring for her children: Nadia, 10, and her younger siblings Kolby and Chelsea.

• • •

Those kids were her life.

A devout Christian, she took them to church almost every Sunday at 60th Street Baptist Church.

She wasn't a joke teller, but she had a way of making people feel good, said her aunt, Teresa Thomas. Especially her children. Her smile fixed bad moods.

Chelsea, Thomas' youngest, slept in bed with her nearly every night.

The mother and her children were pals as much as anything else. They went to fun places and did fun things: the skating rink, the beach, Chuck E. Cheese's.

At home, they put on impromptu concerts for other family members, or just for each other. They performed Michael Jackson hits and, from the movie Titanic, the song My Heart Will Go On.

Sitting in her niece's living room, surrounded by family photos, Teresa Thomas didn't want to imagine the children's lives without their mother.

"Everywhere she went, they went with her, too," she said. "She always made sure they were happy."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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