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Mom found dead; police searching for boyfriend

A 40-year-old mother who asked the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to drop battery charges against a boyfriend five weeks ago was found dead Thursday morning, her body hidden behind a patch of oaks off Cross Creek Boulevard.

While detectives examined the remains of Karen Osorio-Cruz, the search continued Thursday night for Steven P. Clark, the boyfriend she had previously accused of stabbing her.

Clark, 22, has been arrested seven times in six years, most recently on May 9, after clashing with Osorio-Cruz, who told deputies he cut her with a kitchen knife.

Those charges were dropped by prosecutors May 28 at Osorio-Cruz's written request. Her signature, along with her own arrest record, persuaded state attorney Dean Tsourakis to drop the case.

When told about Osorio-Cruz's death early Thursday evening, Tsourakis sounded stunned.

"This is a prosecutor's worst nightmare," Tsourakis said. "In 19 years, I've never had this happen to me."

Deputies found the body after they received a series of phone calls Thursday morning from residents at Andover Apartments along Cross Creek Boulevard, according to Hillsborough Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

At 3 a.m., a couple called to report that their 2000 gold Lexus was missing, along with Clark, who had been staying with them. Minutes after the first call, a second call came in from a shaken resident who discovered a pool of blood in the parking lot, Carter said.

A deputy followed the blood to a Ford Explorer and saw more of it inside the vehicle, which was registered to Osorio-Cruz.

After tracking her address to an apartment complex off Fletcher Avenue, deputies learned that her 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter had spent the night alone. The children told deputies that they hadn't seen their mom since late Wednesday afternoon.

The children were placed in the custody of state child welfare officials. Deputies than began a search for Clark, whom they describe as 6 feet tall, 180 pounds and driving the Lexus with a tag of H11VMN.

Later Thursday morning, about 11:30 a.m., a sheriff's deputy noticed tire tracks streaked in wet sand leading from Cross Creek Boulevard. The tracks led the deputy to a body later identified as Osorio-Cruz's.

Carter said the body had been there for several hours, possibly overnight, and that the upper torso had been traumatized. She would not identify the type of wounds.

Osorio-Cruz worked for Quest Inc., a medical laboratory with facilities in Tampa, according to the May police report.

In 2001, she was charged with domestic violence, after police were called to the Navajo Avenue home she shared with her then-husband, Izander Manuel Cruz. In March, she and Clark were charged with burglarizing Cruz's home.

Each time she was arrested, she listed no family members as emergency contacts, jail booking records show. She only listed the name of Sophia Tinsley.

"She was my friend," said Tinsley, who lives in Temple Terrace. "I loved her. Everything about her was special."

As her voice quivered, Tinsley said she was too upset to speak further.

Clark's whereabouts were unknown late Thursday as deputies searched the region for him and the missing Lexus.

Trouble with the law has been a common refrain in Clark's life.

He was released from state prison in January after serving about two years for battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence and disorderly conduct.

In 2000, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for obstructing or opposing an officer. He had also been charged with repeat violation of a court injunction. In 1999, he was sentenced to six months in jail after being found guilty of grand theft of a motor vehicle.

Then, March 7 brought the burglary of Izander Cruz's home. Clark and Osorio-Cruz both faced charges.

Tsourakis said he was involved in that case, too, and he recalled that Osorio-Cruz was not an innocent bystander.

"She was the instigator," Tsourakis said. "They terrorized her husband's new girlfriend. She yelled stuff like, "Get her! Get him!' She was egging Clark on."

Two months later, Clark turned against Osorio-Cruz, according to a sworn statement she gave deputies.

"I'm tired of playing mind games!" Clark reportedly told Osorio-Cruz after an argument May 8.

The woman told deputies Clark then stabbed her in the left side of the neck and forced her outside. He told her he would "stab her 'till the breath in her is gone," Deputy K. Bennett wrote in the report.

She was stabbed again in her left arm and had bruises on her left knee and finger. After Osorio-Cruz called police, Clark fled in her Explorer, the reports stated.

Neighbors said they saw blood on her front stoop the next day and a paper towel soaked in blood. Osorio-Cruz refused medical attention, according to a report.

Tsourakis said the case would have been difficult to prosecute, because the Osorio-Cruz wouldn't cooperate and because her injuries weren't severe. Three weeks after the attack, the scar on her neck was a "pin prick," he said.

"There's some stabbings where you can paint the walls in blood," Tsourakis said. "This wasn't one of them."

Still, Tsourakis said he pleaded with her to prosecute, arguing that Clark had a criminal record that indicated he wouldn't stop.

But Osorio-Cruz wouldn't listen, he said.

With no other witnesses, an uncooperative star witness and her arrest record in a crime with the defendant, Tsourakis concluded his case was a weak one.

"It's a tough call," he said. "But we decided we didn't have a case because, with all these factors playing before a jury, we were looking at not guilty."

Tsourakis got approval from chief felony prosecutor Art McNeil, who two days later was named a Hillsborough County judge by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Osorio-Cruz's death may be among the first blushes of violence in the young history of New Tampa, a swath of master-planned middle-class housing developments.

Her body was discovered on 8 acres of land owned by developers Tracy Harris and Bing Kearney, a parcel now reserved for horseback riding and earmarked for townhomes.

Veteran homicide investigators were stumped.

"I've worked in homicide here for five years, and I don't recall the county ever having a homicide in New Tampa," said Detective J.D. Tindall, who was supervising the homicide unit of the Sheriff's Office Thursday.

"I just talked to one of my men who's been here for 15 years, and he doesn't remember a single homicide in the New Tampa area," said J.R. Burton, homicide sergeant for the Tampa Police Department.

_ Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Bill Coats, David Karp and Patty Ryan contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansicklersptimes.com.

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