Gators unlikely culprits, but autopsy offers few answers in death of teen at St. Pete lake

The report lists Jarvis Deliford’s cause of death as undetermined. His mother still believes someone killed him.
The body of Jarvis Deliford was found in Lake Maggiore on the Fourth of July.
The body of Jarvis Deliford was found in Lake Maggiore on the Fourth of July. [ Deliford family ]
Published Sept. 12, 2019|Updated Sept. 12, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Authorities and family members hoped an autopsy would shed light on how a 16-year-old boy ended up dead in a lake, partially dismembered by alligators.

But the report was released this week and the cause and manner are listed as inconclusive in the death of Jarvis Deliford.

The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner notes in the autopsy that the body of the teen was severely decomposed and that high levels of amphetamines and methamphetamines were found in his system.

“My only hope was the autopsy," the boy’s mother, Regina Wooten, said through tears. “We need to pray. As a community we need to pray.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Body found near alligators identified as 16-year-old boy

St. Petersburg police detectives also were hoping for more information from the autopsy, spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said. The investigation remains open while detectives look for other avenues to fill in the blanks.

“Maybe if they get any other info, tips, maybe it’ll spur some other information to come forward,” she said, “but that’s where we are right now.”

Authorities search Lake Maggiore by boat after the partially dismembered body of  Jarvis Deliford was found in mangroves there July 4. [ANGELIQUE HERRING   |   Times]
Authorities search Lake Maggiore by boat after the partially dismembered body of Jarvis Deliford was found in mangroves there July 4. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]

On July 4, witnesses saw an alligator dragging Deliford’s partially dismembered body through mangroves. The Medical Examiner’s Office identified him through fingerprints and tattoos that matched photos on file from when he had been booked into juvenile detention.

It’s still unclear whether he was still alive when he entered the lake, said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the medical examiner. It’s also unknown how he ended up at the lake. There are no obvious signs of trauma to his body, such as a gunshot or stab wound.

“But when you have that delay and they’re in a fresh water pond, and then there’s alligators, could there have been subtle evidence there and we just can’t see it because of those factors?” Pellan said. “That’s why undetermined is really the only option, short of that obvious trauma.”

But it seems unlikely that alligators killed Deliford, Pellan said. That view is consistent with what experts previously told the Tampa Bay Times — that it’s more likely the reptiles happened on Jarvis’ body while scavenging.

Dr. Stephen Nelson, medical examiner for Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, reviewed the autopsy report for the Times and said that, absent more information, the most probable cause of death is a drug overdose.

The amount of methamphetamine in his system was “wildly high,” Nelson said.

Pellan agreed this is a possibility. But the chest fluid where the illicit drug was detected doesn’t allow for highly accurate analysis and nailing down an exact cause now may create problems later if more information comes to light, he said.

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The office can always amend the autopsy later.

“I wish we had something that we could give the family and everybody answers on,” Pellan said.

Wooten, the boy’s mother, said she knew her son did drugs, including marijuana and ecstasy. But he didn’t do meth, she insisted. She thinks someone may have drugged him and dumped him in the lake. He didn’t know how to swim, she said, so it didn’t make sense he’d go into the lake voluntarily.

The last time she saw Deliford was June 29, after she picked him up from juvenile detention and brought him to their home on Paris Avenue. He had been at the center for a violation of probation charge in connection with an earlier burglary.

Deliford made a quick phone call to a girl who seemed to upset him, Wooten, 43, recalled.

Wooten was cleaning out her freezer as she heard him take a shower and head to his room. She thought he was resting, she said, and went to go check on him a little while later.

She walked in and found an empty room. His ankle monitor was left behind, sawed off with a knife. He had been home for no more than an hour, she said.

Deliford was a smart kid, she said. As a freshman at Gibbs High, he enjoyed science class and had many friends. He liked to fish. Sometimes he’d hang out at the lake with a group of older boys.

“My son was very bright and intelligent," she said. “He was just wrapped up in the street.”

She’s been frustrated at the pace of the police investigation and the inconclusive autopsy results were a fresh blow during a tortured couple of months.

“I have my days in and out," Wooten said. “It’s like a roller coaster ride: Swinging to the left and right, up and down. It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.