TAMPA — For two weeks, federal marshals, police and deputies asked the fugitive's family for help finding him.
For two weeks, they heard the same far-flung responses about the location of John Jerome Speights Jr., the convicted child rapist known as "Poppa Love."
Atlanta. Virginia. North Florida.
"The same rhetoric," said Tampa police Sgt. Richard O'Connor, a member of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force.
Task force members decided to turn up the heat.
Wednesday, more than 10 law officers began marathon questioning sessions with Speights' family and friends that lasted until 11 p.m. They wanted to make Speights uncomfortable.
The pressure seemed to work.
Thursday, acting on a tip, the task force found the 45-year-old felon behind the Golden Corral at 6942 W Hillsborough Ave. Speights has been on the run since he left to use a restroom and disappeared from the courthouse before a trial where he was accused of impregnating a 13-year-old relative.
The trial went on without him, and on April 28, a jury found him guilty on two counts of sexual battery by custodial authority, lewd and lascivious molestation, incest and child abuse by impregnation. Police say he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
After his arrest, police tacked five counts of failure to appear in court to his lengthy arrest record, which includes charges of battery, bigamy, aggravated assault and cruelty to a child.
The federal task force received a tip Thursday morning that Speights might be near the buffet's parking lot, and officers canvassing the area soon spotted him walking through the parking lot into some trees. They ordered him to the ground.
"You understand the game is over," O'Connor said he told Speights.
"Yeah, man," the fugitive replied. "I won't give you any problems."
As he was led, handcuffed, into a sheriff's patrol car, Speights offered his own explanation for his pretrial escape.
He told Bay News 9 that his lawyer coached him to leave the trial. His attorney had told him that he was negotiating a 15-year plea deal with prosecutors, Speights said. If the lawyer didn't return to him in a few minutes, Speights alleged, that was his cue to leave.
"I don't want to see you go to jail in front of all your kids," Speights said his attorney told him. "He knew from the get-go I shouldn't have been going to trial for the info I told (him)."
Jorge Chalela, Speights' attorney, did not return a phone message and an e-mail on Thursday.
Speights, when found, had just $3 on him.
"Looks like he was living in a wooded area back behind the Golden Corral," said Hillsborough Detective Marvin Johnson of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force.
If he had been living outdoors, O'Connor said, it looked as if he hadn't been there long. His blue pants and black T-shirt seemed clean. His shirt bore the words, "I hope you're beautiful on the inside, because your outside needs work."
"He had a little sweatshirt with him," Johnson said. "I don't know, maybe he was covering himself up with it at night."
Task force members think Speights did spend some time on the lam in Virginia and Marianna, where he knows people, O'Connor said.
While he was on the loose, his victim, now 16, told a Times reporter that she was scared. Her mother said the girl woke up the other night from a nightmare. Her rapist was in it.
"I'm happy that he's caught," her mother said Thursday. "Now, I'll get my baby some counseling and get her through this. …
"She doesn't have to have any more nightmares."
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.