PINELLAS PARK — Richard H. Levo was beaten and stabbed to death Thursday while trying to stop early morning vehicle burglaries by two thieves.
Hours later, those thieves, Aaron Edward Cook and Tiffany Ann Mitchell, hitched a ride to a Pasco County motel, police said.
But they left behind a trail.
That's how Pinellas Park detectives were able to track down the pair and arrest them on charges of first-degree murder 21 hours after the slaying.
"It was just good, hard police work," said Pinellas Park police Capt. Sanfield Forseth.
Levo, 51, was attacked at 1:30 a.m. after police said he spotted two burglars stealing car stereos in his apartment complex. Levo doesn't own a car but watched out for his neighbors. He described his attackers to 911, then died at a hospital three hours later.
By that time detectives had learned the pair's names from witnesses, along with their location: the Valu-Lodge motel at 6523 U.S. 19 in New Port Richey.
There was also forensic evidence: Police said Cook's fingerprints were found on a burglarized car at the crime scene.
And they knew that a Pinellas Park officer had questioned Cook in the same area the day before the slaying.
Pinellas Park asked the New Port Richey Police Department to stake out the motel while detectives finished the arrest warrants. Two other Pinellas Park detectives headed north to the motel.
At about 11 p.m. Thursday, police saw Cook and Mitchell load their belongings into a cab. It headed south on U.S. 19, back toward Pinellas County. Police tailed the cab until the driver committed several traffic infractions. This allowed them to legally pull it over.
Police said they found a loaded semi-automatic handgun in the rear where Cook was seated. Cook, a convicted felon, also had bullets in his pocket, police said. Mitchell agreed to go with the officers to New Port Richey police headquarters to answer questions. By 2 a.m. Friday, detectives had finished the paperwork and both were arrested on the murder warrants.
Mitchell, 19, of New Port Richey, has been arrested in the past on charges of trespassing on school grounds, resisting arrest without violence, dealing in stolen property and burglary.
Cook has an extensive criminal record that goes back to age 14. The Largo man has faced charges of robbery, vehicle theft, fleeing and eluding, reckless driving, burglary, aggravated battery, vehicle burglary and battery.
Cook has refused to speak to police, but Mitchell has been somewhat cooperative. According to police, she said Levo grabbed one of them in the parking lot, and then they attacked him.
Detectives suspect the victim was attacked with a folding pocket knife. Cook's hand has a cut, as if a knife closed on it. Police have not recovered the weapon, but they did find stolen stereos left behind at the Whetstone Apartments at 8400 49th St. N.
One of the clues that helped lead police to Cook came from one of their own officers.
It was Wednesday afternoon, hours before the murder. Pinellas Park Officer Patti Fiedler saw Cook and some teens in the Rainbow Food Mart parking lot — along with two toddlers.
She'd dealt with Cook before. He was tattooed, shirtless and his shorts hung low. She pulled up, and the teens ran. But not Cook. He couldn't leave because he was watching the kids for someone.
Fiedler sensed something was off about Cook. He admitted to smoking pot, the officer said.
The officer had no reason to arrest him then. However, she did report the incident to the state child welfare hotline.
When Fiedler's next shift started at 5:30 a.m. Thursday, hours after the murder, she heard the description the victim gave of one of his attackers: white male, red hair. She reported her contact with Cook.
Both suspects are being held without bond in the Pasco County jail. Both will be brought back to Pinellas to stand trial.
Cook also faces Pasco charges of carrying a concealed firearm, being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and removing the serial numbers from a firearm.