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Submerged vehicle offers clues to Tampa man's death

The body of Jason Downey, 31, was found Sept. 21.

The body of Jason Downey, 31, was found Sept. 21.

ST. PETERSBURG — Clues to the cause of a Tampa man's mysterious death dangled from a crane over Tampa Bay on Monday.

The Florida Highway Patrol pulled a mud-covered Toyota Rav 4 from the waters below the Howard Frankland Bridge about 12:30 p.m., two weeks after 31-year-old Jason Downey was found dead at the water's edge.

Witnesses told police they last saw Downey about 2 a.m. Sept. 19 at Georgie's Alibi in St. Petersburg, a bar where he frequently met friends on Thursday nights.

And though a fisherman first spotted his body near the Fourth Street approach to the Howard Frankland Bridge on Sept. 21, the mystery of how he got there has haunted those who knew him.

Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said investigators believe Downey was headed back to Tampa when he ran into the back of a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban while both were traveling east on Interstate 275.

Michael McKillips Bell, 49, of Lakeland told investigators he felt something hit the back of his Suburban but saw nothing and kept driving. Last week, St. Petersburg police received a tip about Bell's possible connection to a crash involving Downey.

On Saturday, investigators walked the bridge and discovered a black skid mark the length of about two cars across and over a hip-high concrete wall.

On Monday, they blocked off three lanes of traffic on the Pinellas County side of the hump. Within five minutes, four divers from Pinellas County Sheriff's Office found the vehicle submerged beneath 18 feet of water with the help of a sonar scanning device. Airbags had deployed.

The sport utility vehicle was on its roof, facing the southeast, with the driver's side door open — details divers knew prior to getting into the water because of the sonar scans, Pinellas County Sgt. Jim Bordner said.

St. Petersburg police used no such technology in its search. Spokesman Bill Proffitt told the Times two weeks ago that police had searched the bay and were "sure there is no car offshore."

Questioned Monday, Proffitt said that police searched from the air, using a helicopter to scan the area near shore where Downey was first found.

Monday's discovery brought some relief for people who loved Downey, a veterinary technician.

"At least there's a lot more answers that are coming," said friend David Landreth, 31.

But the discovery of Downey's vehicle raises new questions.

"Did that person see Jason go over the bridge?" Landreth asked. "Did Jason fall asleep?"

Investigators are awaiting the results of toxicology tests before a medical examiner determines Downey's cause of death.

No charges have been filed in the case, but detectives are still investigating, Gaskins said.

Bell, the Suburban driver, could not be reached for comment. State records show Bell has had two traffic violations, one in 2000 for operating a vehicle in unsafe conditions and one in 2004 for failure to obey a traffic sign.

Downey had 15 traffic citations, which include twice failing to observe a stop sign, twice driving with an expired tag, four times driving without a valid license, once violating seat belt laws, four times speeding, once driving with an obscured tag, and once operating a car in unsafe conditions.

In four of those cases — tickets for speeding, failure to observe a stop sign and driving without a valid license — adjudication against Downey was withheld.

In addition, his license had been suspended eight times for failing to pay traffic fines, records show. He was, however, driving with a valid driver's license at the time of the crash.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Submerged vehicle offers clues to Tampa man's death 10/06/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 12, 2008 1:26pm]
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