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Missing roommate briefly held in Georgia

Pinellas detectives say they are no longer searching for the suspected poisoning victims' companion.

The missing roommate of the couple who died last week in what is thought to be a case of cyanide poisoning was detained briefly on a traffic violation in Georgia on Friday, but he walked away after posting bail of $144.

That leaves Pinellas County investigators pondering the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Gail and John Walter.

Investigators have been trying to interview Alan-Jan P. Manes, 37, since Thursday morning, when he bolted from Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs during a break in questioning.

Manes had told deputies the poisoning was accidental, and detectives say Manes is not a suspect. But his flight raised suspicion about the case, said Pinellas County sheriff's Lt. Stephen Shipman.

"We really had a lot more questions we wanted to ask him to clear up this whole thing," Shipman said.

Sheriff's officials spent Thursday and Friday searching for Manes, and local law enforcement agencies were told to watch for a 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity registered to Gail Walter, which Manes was thought to be driving.

That car was pulled over by police in Dalton, Ga., early Friday morning next to the Dalton airport. Dalton police said Manes was detained for driving without a license. County records show Manes was jailed briefly. The car remains impounded in Georgia.

Pinellas detectives are no longer searching for Manes, Shipman said.

"I say that because we don't know where to start," Shipman said.

Sheriff's Detective Michael Holbrook said: "We're hoping he'll do the right thing and come forward."

It was Manes who made the 911 call that brought paramedics to 502 Pennsylvania Ave. early Thursday. He said his two roommates might have ingested cyanide.

John Walter, 60, who was unconscious or semiconscious when paramedics arrived, was taken to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 10:30 a.m. Walter's ex-wife, Gail Walter, 63, was described by paramedics as uncooperative. She told paramedics she had vomited and therefore thought that she had purged the poison from her system, Shipman said. She was later persuaded to go to Mease Dunedin Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 11:30 a.m.

During a brief interview at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, Manes told deputies the poisoning was an accident. He said he had used a solution containing cyanide while electroplating a computer circuit board the night before and left a container in the kitchen to be cleaned. The couple apparently prepared some food in the contaminated container and fell ill, he said.

At the hospital, Manes verbally consented to allow a search of the home but bolted when deputies left briefly to get consent forms.

Holbrook said Manes slipped out a side door while one deputy went outside the hospital and another waited outside the room.

"He (the deputy) didn't realize he could go out another door," Holbrook said. "Up until that point, he (Manes) was being cooperative."

Neighbors said they saw Manes loading several suitcases into his car before leaving for the hospital, Shipman said.

"This would suggest there was a plan to leave," he said.

Investigators also said that Manes gave several versions of events, Shipman said. On one occasion, he said, Manes told law enforcement officials that Mrs. Walter used a container he had used for electroplating to make Jell-O, into which she placed some diet pills to make them more palatable. In another version, Manes told detectives he had fixed sandwiches and drinks and that all three ate them, Shipman said.

After Manes' disappearance, county detectives obtained a warrant to search the home.

The search of the home "tends to fit the way it was initially reported, that it was an accident," Shipman said. "There was nothing to take us in another direction."

There were no suicide notes or other evidence to suggest the deaths were a suicide, he said.

"We've seen nothing, yet that suggests the deaths were intended by any other parties," Shipman said. "Other than him taking off, we didn't see anything that looked suspicious about it."

Detectives said they have now determined the product that contained the cyanide appears to have been purchased legally in Largo, though they would not say where.

Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farleysptimes.com.

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