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Body found afloat near VA center

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Authorities suspect that the man, whose body was found near the boat Reunion Tarpon Springs, was a 48-year-old whose last known residence was in St. Pete Beach.

A boater found a man's body floating in a harbor near the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines on Wednesday morning.

Investigators said there were no visible injuries to the man's body, though an autopsy is scheduled for today to determine a cause of death.

Detectives did not eliminate homicide as a possible cause of death but said the man also could have slipped into the water and hit his head, died a natural death or drowned.

The man carried no identification, so detectives used fingerprints to determine his name Wednesday afternoon.

They tentatively identified him as a 48-year-old man whose last known residence was in St. Pete Beach.

Detectives were searching late Wednesday for family members or acquaintances in the area. They would not release his name before finding his family, said Marianne Pasha, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Largo resident Charles Pravda was sightseeing on his airboat with friends about 11 a.m. when he saw the man's body 10 to 15 feet from a sea wall on the north side of the harbor. He called 911.

The area is several hundred yards west of the medical center and just south of the Seminole-Bay Pines boulevards overpass.

Pravda said the body was floating face-up about 20 feet from a boat, the Reunion Tarpon Springs, that was moored near the shore. The boat was anchored or tied near heavy mangroves. A sliding glass door was open on the boat, and a padlock used to secure the door was unlocked, investigators said. It was unclear if the boat had any link to the dead man, detectives said.

The man may have been a transient, investigators said. That area is frequented by the homeless, some of whom sleep under the overpass; many are veterans who go to the medical center.

The VA center has about 350 in-patient veterans staying at the facility each day, and none of them was reported missing or unaccounted for Wednesday, said Laurence Christman, facility spokesman.

Christman said there are about 50,000 patients registered with the center, most of whom receive outpatient care. He said a handful of patients live on boats in the harbor, where the man's body was found.

"We have thousands of patients," Christman said. "He could easily be one of them."

Two officers with the Department of Veterans Affairs police, who work at the medical center, looked at the body but did not recognize the man.

Because the harbor is mostly closed off by land, investigators think the man probably fell in the water and did not float into the harbor from another area.

The man was wearing a camouflage jacket, black sweat shirt and tan pants cut off near the knees. He wore no socks or shoes. Pravda said the man also was wearing a Navy military-type belt.

The man had long, dark hair and a slightly graying beard.

Detectives found only a package of cherry cough drops in his pockets.

Investigators said it didn't appear that the man's body had been in the water very long.

"I'd say (he was in the water) overnight at best," said sheriff's Sgt. Michael J. Ring.