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He's a far cry from the boy she recalls

Published Feb. 23, 2006

Leslie Cox has been staring at the picture on her computer screen.

The man in the mug shot, Michael Anthony White, looks older than his 35 years. Head tilted back, he gazes at the camera with hooded eyes; his mouth a thin, unhappy line.

She looks at the picture and tries to see a trace of the shy boy she once knew. She used to ride her horse through his daddy's strawberry fields. They were married when they were barely more than children.

Wednesday, White was in the county jail, charged with stealing more than $300,000 from his parents. In Durant, sheriff's divers searched a pond on his parents' farm for clues to his father's murder.

At a news conference, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said they had a "keen interest" in Michael White.

Leslie Cox wondered what she would say if she could speak with the man who was once her husband.

"What has gone wrong?" she would ask. "What the heck happened?"

To Leslie Ladonna Hancock, Michael White was the boy from the neighborhood. Their parents were friends.

He started coming around when they were both still in junior high.

Leslie paid no attention to him until the morning when she walked out to the bus stop and saw the words he had spray-painted on the road: I LOVE LESLIE LADONNA.

Then she was his girl.

He was a shy and solitary boy with few friends. A "good kid," quiet and polite. He never drank, never smoked.

"I was considered the wild one," Leslie remembered. "He was the goody-goody. . . . If I said a cuss word, he would get mad at me."

Her parents adored him. Years later, when she was going through her second divorce, her father told her she should have stayed with Michael.

Bruce White, Michael White's father, was shot in the early morning of Jan. 9 after he rose to answer a knock at the door.

Deputies say they are still searching for the shooter. A strawberry grower's association has offered a $13,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Michael White was arrested on Feb. 17.

A Sheriff's Office spokesman said that the murder investigation turned up evidence that Michael White had embezzled money from his parents over the course of 2005, writing himself checks from their accounts.

The Sheriff's Office says that two short-barreled shotguns and anabolic steroids were found in Michael White's home when deputies arrived to arrest him.

Michael White's rental car had been reported stolen from a Turkey Creek Road convenience store on Dec. 28. The Sheriff's Office said the car has been found, but won't say how or where.

By the time Michael White was 16, Leslie Cox remembers, he had quit school to work on the family's strawberry farm. She remembers him working all the time, driving the tractor, maintaining the fields.

She was 17 and he was 18 when they married. Her parents didn't think she was too young; they made her promise to graduate from high school.

For her graduation, Michael gave her a horse named Misty, an Arabian bay with one blue eye.

"He would do anything for me," she said.

But Leslie White was restless.

"I went from daddy to husband," she said. "There was more for me than just the strawberry farm and Durant. . . . I was ready to fly."

After seven months of marriage, she asked for a divorce.

On Wednesday, the sheriff's underwater recovery team searched the Whites' pond.

Inch by inch, divers sifted through the silt. Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter wouldn't say what, if anything, the deputies expected to find.

"We're just being thorough," she said.

At the same time, the Sheriff's Office held a news conference to reiterate that Bruce White's murder was targeted.

"We do not believe this is a random act of violence," said Col. Gary Terry.

So far, detectives have interviewed 106 people in east Hillsborough County, Terry said. They are analyzing evidence they found in Michael White's trailer.

The two sawed-off shotguns do not match the murder weapon, Terry said.

Michael White has invoked his right to an attorney and is not cooperating with investigators, Terry said.

"We have a keen interest in Mr. White at this time," he said.

Two months after the divorce was final in 1989, court records show, Michael White was arrested by Plant City police and charged with possession of marijuana and carrying a concealed weapon.

Deputies arrested him on similar charges in 1990.

In 1997, he was arrested again, charged with aggravated battery on a police officer, and resisting arrest.

By that time, he had married again, this time to a woman named Lisa Marie Moody. That marriage would also end in divorce, in 2003.

His relationship with Leslie was long over.

For a long time, she said, they had played "cat and mouse" - getting back together, splitting up again.

The last time she heard from him, she was in basic training in the Army. He told her he would come to visit her. But he never showed.

Years passed. She was divorced again, married again, with children.

In December, she heard Bruce White's name on the radio. She was shocked by his murder. But she didn't contact Michael. She wasn't sure what she would say, or if he would want to hear from her.

After he was arrested, she went to the sheriff's Web site and pulled up the mug shot.

"I remember him being 18," she said. "He looked like Sylvester Stallone. He had long, curly hair and big brown eyes."

She stared at the picture of the short-haired, hard-eyed man. She wondered what he was feeling.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or Staff members Caryn Baird, Justin George and Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report.