PORT RICHEY — Early Monday morning, a sheriff's deputy patrolling on U.S. 19 spotted a white Cadillac DeVille that matched the description of a getaway car from a fatal shooting hours before.
He pulled it over, found drugs inside and arrested the driver, Franklin Steven Henry — whose appearance was also consistent with the description of the murder suspects.
Henry went to jail charged with drug possession, records show, but was released on bail a few hours later. Sheriff's officials later said they didn't have enough evidence at that point to hold him in the Sunday afternoon killing of Pedro Perez.
What they did have, however, were two tangible leads — a car and a driver — that they didn't show to a key witness who might have been able to identify them.
"We were following other leads as part of the investigation," Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said Wednesday. "We would have probably gotten to it sooner or later."
By Tuesday, another witness had come forward and detectives had enough evidence to arrest Henry, this time on a charge of first-degree murder.
They found him at home.
He and two other men are now charged with Perez's murder, the result of a drug deal gone awry.
Detective Lisa Schoneman, who led the investigation, gave the following account:
Henry was looking to buy drugs Sunday and contacted Selvin Zuniga, a 21-year-old Pinellas man. Zuniga got in touch with Antonio Arriaga, 22, and Jose Juan Rodriguez, 28, who both knew Perez.
The three suspects and Zuniga took Henry's Cadillac to Perez's house at 6735 El Camino Paloma St., in the San Clemente East neighborhood off Fox Hollow Drive, Schoneman said.
They intended to buy an ounce of cocaine, which has a street value of about $700. When the men arrived, Perez brought them to the garage.
There, he pointed a .38-caliber automatic handgun at them and demanded money. He had the four men empty their pockets and sent Abel Velez, a 17-year-old who lived with Perez, to look for money in the DeVille.
While Velez was outside, he heard four gunshots, Schoneman said. Henry ran out of the garage and threatened Velez with his gun, then took off with Zuniga in the car.
Velez retrieved the gun Perez was holding, ran into the street and shot at the fleeing car.
Arriaga and Rodriguez told detectives they stayed behind to help Perez but fled from behind the house as authorities arrived. Perez was later pronounced dead at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital.
Arriaga, of 13000 Avon St., in Hudson, and Henry, of 6717 River Road in New Port Richey, were arrested Tuesday night. Rodriguez, of 2578 Ranchside Terr., in New Port Richey, was apprehended early Wednesday morning.
Rodriguez and Arriaga were arrested under the felony murder statute, in which a person can be charged with a death that occurs during the commission of a felony.
Velez and Zuniga will not be charged, the Sheriff's Office said.
Right after the shooting, Doll noted, Henry did something to disguise himself, namely shaving off his dreadlocks.
But Doll acknowledged the missed connection in the first arrest.
"I mean, that's definitely something to look into as an investigator, but again we were following a number of leads and that was just one of the leads," he said.
"At that point, there was no connection made between the two."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.