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A fabricated rape. A fatal stabbing. The bizarre backstory of a Largo man's death.

Michael Peterson enjoys one of his favorite activities, fishing, in this undated photo on the left. He was fatally stabbed May 10 in an incident that was ruled a case of self-defense. At right is a memorial for Peterson, 60, that sits outside his apartment in the Lakes at Largo complex at 11442 137th St. [Courtesy of Mark Peterson | KATHRYN VARN, Times]
Published May 22

LARGO — Robert Peterson found the notes in his brother's locked filing cabinet.

They were scrawled on notebook paper in Mike Peterson's angular handwriting, usually directed to or about his neighbor, Brittany Sorey. The notes created a rudimentary timeline of their interactions.

"I would just like u to know how I'm so very proud of you to have the courage to accept the help that others are offering you," he wrote in one note, dated at the end of March.

An April 1 note said he had lent Sorey and her husband $442.04 for a lawyer, bug exterminator and phone minutes.

That led to an April 19 message to the husband: "Been by here three times today. No one answers the door. I know you're there. I need to talk to you about" the money.

Less than a month later, Michael Peterson would be dead. The 60-year-old Rhode Island native was killed in a stabbing, police said, fueled by a false report of rape.

The man who killed Peterson said he acted in self-defense. He was never arrested.

Instead, it was Brittany Sorey who ended up in jail.

• • •

The winding tale started on April 14, according to Largo police. Detectives gave this account:

Sorey, 30, told police a stranger sexually battered her. A man she described as Hispanic broke into her apartment in the same complex as Peterson's at 11442 137th St. The man violated her with a broken broom handle and a box cutter, she said.

She later moved out of the apartment and let a friend, Timothy Hignite, move in. He was living there the night of May 10 when Peterson came knocking on his neighbor's door.

Thinking Sorey and her husband were inside, he yelled that he wanted his money back and threw a beer bottle against the door. Witnesses later told police Peterson had been drinking.

Hignite, 38, called Sorey and described the belligerent man outside his door. She told Hignite that it sounded like it could be the person who had raped her. Hignite said he'd try to get a photo of the man.

He opened the door, phone in one hand, a 6-inch knife in the other. Then the dispute turned physical.

Peterson tried to douse Hignite with pepper spray. The fight continued, police said, then Hignite stabbed Peterson several times. A neighbor called 911.

Hignite told police that he acted in self-defense. Neighbors told police Peterson was the aggressor.

Detectives consulted with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and decided not to arrest Hignite, said Largo police spokesman Lt. Randall Chaney.

• • •

The stabbing led to the unraveling of the rape allegation.

Detectives re-interviewed Sorey. Her April 14 sexual battery allegation that escalated the fatal confrontation was false, she told them. Sorey said she lied because of her depression and marital problems, she said, according to Chaney.

Largo police records details one such incident just weeks before. Her husband, Gerald Sorey, was arrested in March on charges that he pushed his wife and threatened to shoot himself during an argument, police said. She was six weeks pregnant at the time. The charge was dropped after the wife declined to prosecute him, according to court records.

Brittany Sorey was arrested Friday on a charge of making a false report of a crime, a misdemeanor. She was booked into the Pinellas County jail and released the next day after posting $150 bail.

She could not be reached for comment Tuesday, nor could her husband or Hignite.

A May eviction complaint against the couple hung on their apartment's doorknob. It was unknown if the Soreys still lived there, or if Hignite did.

False accusations of sexual battery and rape are rare. The best estimates are that it happens in 2 to 10 percent of reported cases, said University of South Florida criminology professor Ráchael Powers. That isn't much higher than false reports of other crimes, she said.

• • •

Michael Peterson's family struggles with the consequences of that false rape allegation. They struggle with everything that unfolded May 10.

They don't understand why Hignite couldn't have kept the door closed and just called the police.

Nor do they understand why Sorey, when relayed a description of the neighbor who helped her and lent her money, told Hignite that it sounded like the man who she falsely claimed attacked her.

That was especially tough for Robert Peterson to comprehend as he looked through the notes in his younger brother's filing cabinet.

"It sounds like he was really trying to help her out," said Robert Peterson, 65.

That was Michael, though, his family members said Tuesday, sitting in his neat living room, a net stuck with lures and a horseshoe crab hanging like a tapestry on one of the walls. He spent much of his free time fishing, sometimes at Vinoy Park, where the family plans to release his ashes into Tampa Bay.

Robert Peterson told a story about a fishing trip he took with his brother in 2003 to Block Island off the southern coast of Rhode Island. Michael always caught something, his brothers said, and that day was no different. He reeled in eight or nine tautogs. A few days later, he brought his empty-handed brother some of his fillets.

"He was a giving guy," Robert Peterson said.

When he wasn't drinking, his family said the Army veteran and former cabinet maker was one of the kindest men they knew. Michael Peterson had his demons, struggling with alcoholism his whole life, they said, but he didn't deserve to die.

"I cannot wrap my head around that he went the way he did," Robert Peterson said, "and there's no consequences."

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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