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FUGITIVE DROWNS IN LAKE ESCAPE

A wanted man who dived in to evade the law is found dead.

Little Man Rayford, a 35-year-old career criminal with a fondness for escaping the law, died Thursday afternoon during his latest attempt. It would have been his greatest.

His first name was James but - at 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds - everyone called him Little Man. He grew up in Lacoochee and spent nearly a third of his life in prison for selling drugs, burglary, grand theft and, of course, escape.

Earlier this year, he evaded Pasco County deputies twice before being caught at the Suncoast Motel on U.S. 19. He answered the door to Room 14 in his underwear, a report states. Inside, deputies found cocaine, marijuana and nearly $6,000 in cash, according to the report. Taken outside and handcuffed, Rayford still tried to run. He made it a few hundred feet before being caught. His legs were shackled after that. He told a deputy he was sorry for running. He wouldn't do it again.

But after he was arrested, released and failed to appear in court, warrants were dispatched for Rayford's arrest. He was on the Pasco County sheriff's Web site as one of its most wanted fugitives and said to be armed and dangerous - something for which his family takes offense.

"He's not all the police make him out to be," said his cousin Sharmaine Richardson on Saturday morning, before authorities pulled Rayford's body from a Spring Hill lake and news of his death was confirmed.

"He's not a violent person."

Richardson said Rayford grew up hard. His mother was killed in a car accident when he was 6, and he had to help his dad raise his four siblings. She said Rayford's 2-year-old daughter died in a car accident and his father died of cancer while Rayford was in prison. She said he also has an 18-year-old son, whom Rayford warned to stay out of trouble.

"You're not going to end up like me," she said Rayford told him.

Richardson said her cousin sold drugs "to provide for his family."

Richardson said Rayford tried to cheer people up if they were down. She said he once saved a toddler from drowning.

"He has a good heart," she said.

On Thursday, a tip came in to authorities that Rayford was fishing on Hunter's Lake in Spring Hill. Deputies and detectives from Pasco and Hernando spotted Rayford and waited for him to come in. A helicopter and tracking canines were ready for Rayford to run. Rayford tooled his johnboat to shore about 5 p.m. but, when he sensed law enforcement was there, he jumped into a blue kayak and tried to paddle to freedom, according to authorities.

A helicopter pilot located Rayford, who ditched the kayak and jumped into the lake.

"He can swim like a fish," Richardson said.

The pilot saw Rayford bob up for air several times.

Then he vanished.

"He knows the wilderness. He grew up on a farm," Richardson said Saturday morning. "I'm hoping and praying he did escape."

Authorities searched for Rayford on land and in the water. Sgt. Donna Black, a spokeswoman for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, said on Friday they would continue searching for Rayford until they found him.

Saturday morning, a body floated to the top of the lake. Later that afternoon, it was identified as Rayford.

"Just because he had a criminal record, it didn't make him a bad person," Richardson said, after she heard of Rayford's death. She said she didn't understand why there was such a force to arrest him. "I don't think the means fit the crime," she said. "They went too far. They didn't have to chase him in the water."

She paused.

"He didn't have to jump in, either," she said quietly.

She sighed.

"All I know is my cousin is dead," she said. "He didn't deserve to die."

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

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