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'Person of interest' named in fatal hit-and-run

NEW PORT RICHEY — The Florida Highway Patrol has named a "person of interest" in the fatal hit-and-run crash that took the life of Marine reservist Nicholas Burns Jr. last month.

Troopers want to find and question 19-year-old Michael Lamar Knight in connection with the June 18 crash that killed Burns on U.S. 19 as he rode his motorcycle home to Citrus County.

"He's a person of interest in the case as a party or a witness to the hit-and-run crash," FHP Sgt. Steve Gaskins said Thursday. "We're trying to make contact with him as part of the investigation."

Burns, 22, was supposed to deploy to Iraq in December. But troopers say a silver-gray Pontiac Grand Prix ran a stop sign at Bougenville Avenue on a Port Richey stretch of U.S. 19 and cut into the path of the motorcyclist, who was driving north.

Burns crashed into the driver's side door, according to the FHP, and died the next day at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center. The Grand Prix never stopped, witnesses told the FHP, and fled south on U.S. 19.

Days later, troopers searching a Port Richey garage found a damaged rental car matching the description of the car that killed Burns. They seized it.

An examination of the car found blood on the damaged driver's side door and hairs in the windshield, according to a report made public Thursday.

Gaskins said officials now know for certain this Grand Prix was involved in a crash, but are waiting for forensic tests to confirm whether it was involved in Burns' death.

The FHP also has yet to identify who it believes was driving the car that killed Burns. Asked whether Knight could have been behind the wheel, Gaskins said he could not comment.

State records show Knight's arrest record started at age 14 and includes charges of battery, robbery and drug possession. The FHP said his driver's license is currently suspended.

But the FHP doesn't think that has kept Knight off the road.

Troopers and Pasco sheriff's deputies were at a Port Richey motel on Wednesday looking for him and two other rental cars he might be driving.

The officers stopped one of the rental cars in the parking lot of the Travelodge at 11736 U.S. 19, hoping to find Knight, according to an FHP report.

Instead, they found Tomela Rashawn Robinson behind the wheel but not on the rental agreement, the report said.

She said Knight was at another Port Richey motel, according to the report. A computer check revealed her license was suspended, the report said, and cocaine was found after a search of the vehicle.

Robinson, 20, of St. Petersburg, was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license, possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia.

She remained at the county jail Thursday in lieu of $2,000 bail.

Also at the scene of Robinson's arrest: employees of Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The company sent them to authorize the search of the car that Robinson was driving.

FHP had complained last month about a lack of cooperation from Enterprise when troopers seized the Grand Prix, the rental car suspected in the fatal hit-and-run.

But a company spokeswoman later told the St. Petersburg Times that was a result of confusion, and that Enterprise was cooperating with the investigation.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

>>HOW TO HELP

If you have a tip

Anyone with information about Michael Lamar Knight's whereabouts or the fatal June 18 crash is asked to contact Highway Patrol Cpl. Toni Shields at (727) 841-4181.

'Person of interest' named in fatal hit-and-run 07/24/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 1:36pm]

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