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Suspected poisoning victims remembered

As law enforcement officials continued to look for a Crystal Beach man who handled cyanide that might have later killed his two housemates, the couple who died was remembered at church services in north Pinellas on Sunday.

At the First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs, where John Walter had been the church's longtime building superintendent, Pastor Herbert Lange told the congregation that Walter's death last Thursday came as profoundly sad news.

"As many of you know, he worked for us for many years," Lange said.

Authorities are investigating whether John Walter, 60, and Gail Walter, 63, died after eating food from a container that had been used to hold cyanide, then inadequately cleaned and left in the kitchen of the home they rented at 502 Pennsylvania Ave. The couple divorced in 1991 but lived together with a housemate, 37-year-old Alan-Jan Peter Manes.

Manes, who goes by "A.J.," initially told sheriff's deputies that he had been using the cyanide to electroplate a computer circuit board the night before the Walters died. During a break in questioning, he bolted from the hospital where John Walter had been taken.

That prompted deputies to begin searching for him _ not as a suspect in a crime, they said, but as a key witness to what happened.

Sunday morning, two blocks away from the Walters' home, at Crystal Beach Community Church, the Rev. Pete Church mentioned the incident at the start of his sermon. Church, the chaplain at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, told the congregation he responded to the emergency room the morning John Walter was brought in.

The couple's deaths were "very sad," he said. "We certainly need to be in prayer for that family."

Several miles to the north, First United Methodist children's minister Sylvia Ragsdale described the Walters' deaths as a "tragic loss" as she led the congregation in prayer.

In his 14 years at First United Methodist Church, John Walter was not only the church custodian but played the trumpet and sang during worship, occasionally led singing and taught Sunday school to seniors for several years.

In the mid 1990s, Walter drew on his background as a former trumpet player on the club circuit in Las Vegas to help a youth instrumental ensemble known as Holy Smoke.

He also thought up the combo's name.

"They back up the singers in (a church group known as) Catch'n the Power, and we were trying to think up something that would build on that," Walter told a St. Petersburg Times interviewer in 1994. "I thought about a head of steam and just came out with Holy Smoke."

In the late 1990s, Walter left his job at the church to become a Methodist missionary in Russia. There, he spent 18 months teaching Christian morals and ethics in Russian schools.

"We thank you for John's life and his ministry at this church," Ragsdale said during her prayer. "We thank you for the many lives that John had touched here and in Russia."

_ Staff writer Ed Quioco contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielsonsptimes.com.

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