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Death of young man found in bay a puzzle

ST. PETERSBURG — Bartender Russell Sutherland slid the mason jar across the lighted bar.

It was a typical Thursday night at Georgie's Alibi, with $2 Long Island iced teas, dance music and a lively crowd on the patio.

But for Sutherland, things were off. One face was missing.

Jason Downey, 31, the regular who made Sutherland his bartender of choice, wouldn't be coming this time. Downey's body was found in Tampa Bay on Sunday, two days after he was last seen here — at this bar, in this place.

"He was standing right here a week ago," Sutherland said on the patio, his 33-year-old eyes showing his disbelief. "He gave me a wink and he waved. … I'm puzzled. I'm totally puzzled."

St. Petersburg police seem to be puzzled as well.

When a fisherman discovered Downey near the Fourth Street approach to the Howard Frankland Bridge, he was fully clothed, wore jewelry and had his wallet.

Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said there was no sign of trauma to the body. It could be weeks before investigators get toxicology results testing for drugs.

Except for one nagging detail, Downey's death might be chalked up to a simple drowning.

His sport utility vehicle is gone.

His 1998 green Toyota RAV4 hasn't been seen since it was parked in the darkened lot across the street from Georgie's Alibi, 3100 Third Ave. N in St. Petersburg.

Reginald Johnson, 48, was one of four people working security Sept. 19 when he last saw Downey walking toward the parking lot alone near 2 a.m.

Working security there for five years, Johnson said he'd come to know Downey as a friendly guy who didn't cause problems. On the night he disappeared, Downey didn't seem intoxicated.

One minute, he was talking with friends. The next, he was alone. And then he was gone, Johnson said, noting, "It's just strange."

A week later, the mystery didn't noticeably dampen Alibi's usual Thursday night scene.

Inside the packed club, men and women twirled and bounced before giant video screens. Bartenders in black golf shirts embroidered with little martini glasses tipped liquor bottles four at a time to mix the popular drink special.

Over on the patio, Pete Kargiannis unwound with two friends over a coffee martini.

He didn't know Downey by name, but shown his picture, Kargiannis gazed silently, then lifted his turquoise ringed fingers to wipe his eyes.

"I know him," he said. "He was just always on the go — he always had his goals."

Immediately, Kargiannis and his friends started speculating about the possibilities. Was he targeted because he's gay and was at a gay bar? Did he give a ride to someone who knows what happened? Did someone slip something into his drink? Kargiannis said he always watches his own glass, just in case.

David Landreth, 31, decided not to go back to the bar that night. One of Downey's good friends, he knew the questions would be flying. Landreth and Downey regularly met here on Thursdays to catch up and party. If the vibe was right, they'd go from Alibi to Grand Central downtown to perform their standard karaoke songs.

That evening was no different — except it was a tame night, no karaoke. Landreth said he left around midnight and hugged his friend goodbye. Just before 2 a.m., Downey, a veterinary technician, told his roommate, Tony Ginski, 42, he'd be heading home to Tampa. He never showed.

Landreth said he wasn't ready to go back to the club a week later. "If I went down there, it would be specifically to find answers — not to party and drink," he said.

He notices every Toyota RAV4 that passes. He has gone to the place police say they found the body and marveled at how shallow the water is there.

It is off the predictable path Downey would have taken to get to his Tampa home.

Downey's mother, Kim Truman, a 51-year-old nurse from Palm Harbor, has stood at the water's edge, too. On Thursday she walked across the Howard Frankland Bridge, peering into the water for clues.

Detectives have searched the water enough that Proffitt said they are "sure there is no car offshore."

But Truman said police told her they scanned the water by helicopter and planned to do it again soon.

Downey's funeral is planned for today at 3 p.m. at Crystal Beach Community Church, 625 Crystal Beach Ave. in Crystal Beach.

Anyone with information about Downey's case was asked to call police at (727) 893-7780.

Death of young man found in bay a puzzle 09/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 11:35pm]
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