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Suspicious death case upgraded to murder

SEMINOLE — Detectives investigated a murder Tuesday in a house where neighbors say two dozen people live.

They found a male body inside a green and white house at 13937 85th Ter. N in Seminole after a caller tipped them off to an injured person about noon.

It took hours for investigators to get a handle on the scene, where witnesses spoke Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Late Tuesday, they obtained a search warrant and upgraded the investigation from a suspicious death to a homicide.

Two people who did not speak English were outside the house when authorities arrived, said Sgt. Jim Bordner, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. Deputies relied on translators to take statements from residents.

Initially authorities said it may have been a home invasion, but it was unclear whether that was still a possibility late Tuesday. Deputies also investigated a home invasion robbery at a different location in Seminole, but there were no obvious signs the incidents were related, Bordner said.

Neighbors said more than two dozen people lived at the two-story house and worked at the Super Buffet Sushi and Grill at a nearby shopping mall. Records show that an owner of the house, Hanny Lau, is also a registered agent of the buffet. He could not be reached for comment.

Neighbor George Bortnyk said he saw more than 25 people living in the house for at least three years. Bortnyk said most of the people in the house appeared to be Asian-American.

"They kind of stick to themselves," said Bortnyk, who said he complained to the county.

Todd Myers, Pinellas County's code enforcement director, said officials visited the home in January 2005 after a complaint about the full house. But the residents told the county they were relatives.

According to housing and zoning rules, only six people can live in one residence if they're not related. But a large family can live in a house as long as it has 150 square feet for the first person and 100 square feet for each additional person. Property records show the Seminole house has at least 2,000 square feet, so about 20 people could live there without violating the code.

"These situations, we do get them from time to time," Myers said, adding the residents are usually immigrants who are working and saving money. "They're difficult to handle."

Myers said the language difference was a problem when code enforcement officers made the 2005 call, during which the residents were cited for a broken window. County officers usually ask for identification but don't go much further than that.

Terry Tokarz, emergency management and training chief for the Seminole Fire Department, said he entered the house Tuesday as part of the initial investigation and didn't notice any obvious signs of overcrowding. He was surprised later when he heard mention of the number of residents.

Still, he said he's seen people living in close quarters before.

Another neighbor, Justine Brumley, 59, said the workers often leave around 10 a.m. and return at 10 at night.

"They're using it as labor housing," Brumley said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Abhi Raghunathan contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Suspicious death case upgraded to murder 06/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 9:34am]

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