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Tampa man is charged in 1993 homicide

In a case that has baffled investigators, authorities charged a Tampa man Thursday in the murder of William Van Pelt, who was shot to death at his mobile home in northeast Hernando County in June 1993.

They believe robbery was a motive.

Ivan Morales, 39, was charged with first-degree murder. He was a neighbor of Van Pelt's at the time of the slaying and may have worked for Van Pelt. He was an early suspect in the case, and authorities described him as a man with a long history of violent crimes.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office said in a statement that detectives from their office and the Tampa Police Department arrested Morales on unrelated charges Wednesday evening at his mobile home in the Tampa Campgrounds.

The Sheriff's Office had a warrant to arrest Morales on a charge of violating probation in connection with a game charge, said Major G.Z. Smith, the sheriff's investigations bureau commander.

Last year, Morales was charged by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Commission with neglecting a 3-year-old Asian black leopard named Taboo.

While he was being interviewed after his arrest Wednesday, Morales made a "full confession to the homicide" and was charged Thursday in Van Pelt's murder, according to the statement. He was being taken to the Hernando County Jail on Thursday evening.

Tampa police also charged Morales with possessing an undisclosed amount of crack cocaine at his home in Tampa.

"He is the sole suspect," Maj. Smith said Thursday.

Smith said Morales was a friend of Van Pelt's and the two had business dealings. He also lived nearby and may have worked for Van Pelt, helping him raise hogs and Rottweilers, Smith said.

The primary motive for the murder probably was robbery, the major said. Authorities believe between $350 and $400 had been taken from Van Pelt.

Van Pelt's body was found June 23 on the floor of his mobile home in the woods, \ of a mile from the Withlacoochee State Forest off Daly Road. He had nearly 70 hogs on his secluded 12 acres.

When sheriff's deputies found Van Pelt, apparently two or three days after he died, his body had decomposed. They discovered seven Rottweiler puppies, one that was dead, and a frenzied adult Rottweiler named Rambo.

The murder baffled Van Pelt's family and sheriff's investigators. Detectives interviewed neighbors, friends and people who had met Van Pelt. They checked into his past, including a couple of drug arrests in the 1980s in Pinellas County.

Morales was an early suspect in the case, but there wasn't sufficient evidence linking him to the murder, Smith said.

"We interviewed him a couple of times," he said. "We had nothing at the time of the crime to arrest him for. . . . It got down to the point where leads were going nowhere."

But the detectives' efforts paid off about a week ago, when their investigation led them to a key witness, who linked Morales to the murder, Smith said.

"It was really through some basic, tenacious police work," he said.

Although Smith said the witness was crucial for their case, there was another bit of information they had discovered that had pointed toward Morales.

Van Pelt's mother had insisted from the beginning that whoever killed her son must have known him. Otherwise, she said, Rambo, the Rottweiler, wouldn't have let her son's killer out alive.

Records show that Morales had a violent past. He apparently shot a co-worker to death at a plush South Florida hotel in 1980 and stabbed his pregnant wife to death in New Jersey in 1981.

A judge in 1984 decided not to convict Morales on the murder charge involving the co-worker, after two police officers involved in the case had died and most of the witnesses had disappeared.

In January 1982, Morales pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with his wife's stabbing and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. It was unclear Thursday how much time Morales spent in prison, but Smith said he believed it was about eight years.

_ Staff Writer Patricia White contributed to this report. Also, information from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Times files was used.