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Kidnapping ends with suicide

After a long talk about the breakup of their one-year romance, 19-year-old Zach Kirby and 17-year-old Brandi Balbontin hugged each other goodbye Wednesday night in a Carrollwood Village park.

Then a man with a gun emerged from the shadows.

"He came from behind two bushes," Kirby said, and pointed a chrome handgun at them.

"What do we have? A midnight rendezvous?" Kirby recalled the man asking.

"He grabbed the back of my shirt and ripped it, then pushed me to my car and told me to leave," Kirby said.

As Kirby headed toward his 1989 Acura Integra, Balbontin, wearing jeans and a black shirt and her hair in a ponytail, stepped inside her turquoise 1995 Toyota Corolla and hit the locks.

"He tapped on the window with the gun and told her to unlock the doors," Kirby said. Then the man got into the back seat and ordered Balbontin to drive.

So began the bizarre kidnapping of Balbontin, the daughter of a veteran Hillsborough sheriff's deputy and a recent honors graduate at Gaither High School.

Investigators said her kidnapper, who apparently planned his crime, had stalked the teens for up to two hours as they chatted in a gazebo in the Millennium Garden Park and then, vanquished by mosquitoes, inside Balbontin's car.

In an effort made personal as they worried for one of their own, at least 80 deputies mounted an intense manhunt in the Carrollwood Village area, a quiet suburban community of landscaped homes where women feel safe enough to jog before daybreak.

The search, which included a bloodhound and a helicopter with a heat-seeking device, began shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday. It ended seven hours later when the kidnapper, 22-year-old Steven Allen Williams, put a pistol to his head and fatally shot himself in the back seat of Balbontin's car. The car was parked about a quarter-mile from where he took the teen.

Balbontin, who was in the front seat, was unharmed. She was later reunited with her father, Luis Balbontin. She spent Thursday with Kirby and her family.

"This is one of the most bizarre cases I've seen in my 25 years," said Lt. Rod Reder, a sheriff's spokesman. "You don't have that many stranger abductions. And to see it come to a close like it did is more bizarre."

The circumstances of Balbontin's rescue were as unusual as her kidnapping.

At first, Reder said, sheriff's investigators sharply questioned Kirby, unsure whether they had a real case.

"I was bombarded by a zillion questions," said Kirby, a Hillsborough Community College sophomore. "They asked me the same questions over and over. What happened? Was I drinking? Do I do drugs? Where had I been? What had I been doing?"

Then the sheriff's bloodhound, Ruby, found what later was identified as Williams' car, parked behind Rainbow Dry Cleaners on the corner of S Village Drive and W Village Drive.

She tracked a scent from the still warm car, a 1991 Isuzu, to a zig-zag pattern in the woods near where the young couple had been talking. That moment, Reder said, convinced investigators that the case was sinister.

As the hours wore on, Reder called the media to make a public plea for help.

Shortly after 6 a.m., county trail ranger Karl Siegfried was on his way to work when he saw Balbontin's car while listening to Reder describe it on the radio.

Siegfried, 44, said he saw a girl driving the Toyota and a man in the back seat. The car was turning from Gunn Highway to head east on Ehrlich Road.

"It was just like (the disc jockey) was talking to me or like God had tapped me on the shoulder and said "Look to your right,' " he said.

Siegfried followed the car while calling in its location to co-worker Jesse Cook, who called 911 and helped direct deputies to the Toyota. Deputy Mark Turner, 27, was heading home at the end of a 14-hour shift when he heard the call.

Turner, who trained under Balbontin's father six years ago as a rookie, spotted the Toyota on Middle Park Drive. As the car, driven slowly by Balbontin, pulled into a nearby driveway, Turner confronted Williams, who was behind her in the back seat.

"Show me your hands! Hands! Hands!" Turner said he yelled.

"He looked at me, then looked forward, put the gun right to his head and pulled the trigger," he said. "No hesitation."

At the sight of the gun, Turner said, he began backing up to the cover of his patrol car, but could not take a shot because Williams sat near the girl. After Williams fired the fatal shot, Balbontin crawled from the Toyota to his patrol car, Turner said, where she climbed into his lap and clung to him, both arms around his neck.

"I kept telling her, "You're okay, you're okay,' " he said. "I put my car in reverse, hit the gas and got her out of there. Then the cavalry got here."

Reder said Williams apparently had planned his crime, purchasing latex gloves and putting a stolen license tag on the Isuzu, which belonged to his grandfather who lives in Georgia.

His motive remains unknown.

Records show Tampa police charged Williams with aggravated assault with a firearm in 1995, when he was 15. The disposition of that case was not available Thursday.

No one answered the door at his father's one-story frame home in Lutz, near Mort Elementary School.

Robert Grader, 29, who lives across the street from Williams' father, said the son was a quiet, friendly young man. He said he was shocked by the kidnapping.

"I would have never thought he'd do something like that," Grader said.

For now, Reder said, no one is pressing Balbontin for details of her ordeal with Williams. The teen turns 18 on Sunday.

Her father, he said, sent a message of thanks to all involved. Ackerman Jewelers, where Deputy Balbontin works off-duty, awarded two free round-trip airline tickets to rangers Cook and Siegfried.

As for Kirby, priorities have changed. Despite the breakup, he said, he plans to spend more time with Balbontin.

"I was worried for her life," he said.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Amy Herdy can be reached at 226-3386 or herdysptimes.com. Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or grantsptimes.com.

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