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Car's roll ends vow to restore his name

A freak accident kills a psychiatrist hours after he restates his quest to be vindicated of a manslaughter conviction.

Over lunch Wednesday, former psychiatrist Louis J. Tsavaris told a longtime friend he was determined to clear his name in a 1981 manslaughter conviction.

Tsavaris was at the center of a lurid, high-profile Tampa case involving the 1975 strangling of 24-year-old legal secretary Cassandra "Sally" Burton, a former patient who prosecutors said was his lover.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Tsavaris said he was still hoping to erase the stain of that conviction.

About an hour and a half later, Tsavaris was killed in a freak accident when he was run over by his own car.

Tsavaris, 70, pulled into a construction site where his cousin was working, just north of the Anclote River, about 4 p.m. He stopped his car and got out, but left his 1988 Volvo station wagon in drive instead of putting it in park, said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper R.C. Espinola.

While his wife, Irene, sat in the passenger seat, Tsavaris walked around the front of the car, and it ran him over, Espinola said.

A nearby construction worker raced to the car, put it in park and turned off the ignition, Espinola said. Tsavaris was trapped underneath the car until firefighters arrived and used a backhoe to lift the car.

He was taken to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 4:50 p.m.

"What a tragedy," said Dr. T.J. Diamandis, a longtime friend who ate lunch with Tsavaris at Nick's Pizza on Wednesday afternoon. "He was one of the happiest guys around."

Diamandis said his friend tried to clear his name for years and spoke to him at lunch about a continuing attempt to do so.

Tsavaris steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying that Burton called him for help one night but that she was dead when he arrived at her home. On his way, he said, he stopped to eat a chocolate ice cream cone.

In 1981, he was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and served 2{ years in prison.

More than 20 years after Burton's death, two former jurors and a former lead prosecutor in the case said they believed he was innocent. But in 1996, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles refused to pardon him, and Tsavaris was not permitted to regain his physician's license.

"I'm not giving up," Tsavaris once vowed.

And he never did, Diamandis said.

"Nobody's really sure what happened," Diamandis said of the case. "He had a lot of distractions, (but) he was the same person, as far as I knew him, all his life."

Tsavaris was released from prison in July 1984. To earn a living and pay mounting debts, he worked in his family's construction company, helped develop mobile home parks and managed a chiropractic office. He later reviewed medical records for lawyers.

The manslaughter conviction was not Tsavaris' only trouble with the law.

Sheriff's deputies arrested Tsavaris in Sarasota in 1979 after answering two calls for help from a young woman. He was charged with her rape and kidnapping. She told police Tsavaris threatened her life, held her down, raped her and kept her prisoner in her own home.

She was treated at a hospital for a bruised eye, a bloody mouth and sore ribs.

Tsavaris denied the charges. A circuit judge dismissed the charges, ruling the case had not come to trial within the 180 days set by Florida's speedy-trial law.

Nearly two hours after Wednesday's accident, Mrs. Tsavaris sat in a lawn chair at the construction site. Periodically, she pointed to the car and said: "Right there. That's where he was. Right there."

Tsavaris was the grandson of a Tarpon Springs sponge diver and son of an engineer for Lykes Steamship Co.

Emmanuel Tsavaris, Louis Tsavaris' cousin and the president of the Alpha Omega Building Corp., leaned against the stairwell of the construction trailer Wednesday evening. He was inside when his cousin was run over, he said.

He spoke proudly about his cousin, who played football at Tarpon Springs High School and later earned degrees from Harvard University and the University of Miami. He interned at Cornell Medical Center and completed his residency training at the University of Michigan. After he began practicing psychiatry in Tampa in 1962, he offered free or reduced-price psychiatry to some Tarpon Springs residents, he said.

"He helped a lot of people," Emmanuel Tsavaris said. "A lot of people."

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.