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Mistaking body for mannequin, workers toss it in a Dumpster

Hernando Sheriff’s Office investigators work Thursday at a Spring Hill home where a body was found hanging in the garage. The body was taken to a transfer station. 
Published Jul. 18, 2014

SPRING HILL — For the second time this year, someone in the Tampa Bay area has mistaken a body for a mannequin and thrown it in a Dumpster.

It happened in St. Petersburg this spring when a security guard trashed the body of an elderly woman who had jumped to her death from her 16th-floor apartment.

And it happened in Spring Hill on Thursday when two workers hired to clean out a house believed the body of a man who hanged himself in the garage was a mannequin used for a prank. One of the men took the body to a dump, where county workers became suspicious and called deputies.

"It was obviously very unusual and very hard to believe," Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said at a news conference Thursday evening.

Sheriff's officials said Israel Lopez, 50, and Adam Hines, 36, were hired to clean out the vacant house at 6527 Treehaven Drive.

The house was in disarray, Nienhuis said, similar to an episode of Hoarders. Dead rodents filled the house and the workers believed that was the source of a foul smell, he said.

While cleaning, the men saw what they both believed was a mannequin hanging from the ceiling in the garage.

"Both individuals as well as the property owners believed the lifelike mannequin was a distasteful Halloween-like hoax left by the former renters," sheriff's officials said in a news release.

The men cut the body down, placed it in a pickup along with other refuse, and hauled everything to the West Hernando garbage transfer station.

There, county employees became suspicious. Shortly before noon Thursday, they called the Sheriff's Office and reported that a body had possibly been disposed in a Dumpster.

Deputies arrived and confirmed their suspicions.

While deputies investigated, Lopez returned to drop off another load of garbage. County officials recognized him and notified deputies.

Nienhuis said Lopez and Hines made an honest mistake and all the evidence indicates that no crime was committed. They could not be reached for comments Thursday night.

"I think it's important to realize that … most people, they either have seen someone who has very recently passed … or they see them at a funeral home," Nienhuis said. "Obviously, this body was not anything close to either of those. It was somewhat mummified."

Deputies identified the dead man as Jeremy Allen Witfoth, 33. Sheriff's officials said he was a previous renter, and it appears hanged himself sometime in the past several weeks.

At the home Thursday afternoon, a forensic technician and detective worked in the garage, which was cluttered with empty boxes, clothing and trash.

"It's always been a sketchy place over there," said Thomas Gast, 43, while watching from his yard down the street.

Gast said he has seen law enforcement cars at the house before, as well as one from a child services agency. He frequently saw a family with children around the home, but said he hadn't seen anyone on the property for the past two months.

Neighbor Fred Simerson, 68, said that on Thursday morning, he saw a woman and two men at the house about 9:30 a.m. who looked like they were showing the house to a potential renter.

A few hours later, he saw a pickup back into the driveway and men cleaning out the garage. Soon after that, deputies arrived.

"This is heavy, man," Simerson said. "I see this stuff on TV. I never thought it would happen in my neighborhood."

This type of mistake is not unprecedented.

In St. Petersburg this spring, a security guard at a downtown apartment complex trashed the body of a 96-year-old woman who had jumped from her 16th-floor unit. The guard believed the body was a mannequin used as an April Fools' Day prank.

The guard was not charged with a crime, but the apartment complex fired him.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Danny Valentine at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.

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