1. Pasco

Truck driver faces murder charge in death of Pasco woman he menaced

SPRING HILL — A 50-year-old man faces charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping after Hernando sheriff's deputies said a woman he was accused of terrorizing was found dead Sunday night inside his semi-trailer truck.

The driver, Manuel Jesus Vega, surrendered to deputies at the Dollar Tree store at 11155 County Line Road. Inside, deputies said they found Viviana Sanchez, 53.

Her death has been classified as a homicide. Vega was arrested on Monday and is now being held in the Hernando County jail without bail.

Vega has a history of domestic violence and had menaced Sanchez for months, court records show. He is also a member of La Asociación Ñeta, authorities said, which is a prison gang that started in Puerto Rico then spread to the rest of the U.S.

In the 2000s, he was convicted in Orange County of charges of kidnapping, interference with child custody and aggravated battery and spent time in prison, according to state records. In 2014 he was convicted of domestic violence battery in Pasco County and felony battery in 2016. He attacked his then-wife in 2016, according to the arrest report. She later died but the report did not elaborate on what happened to her.

Then on April 30, according to an arrest warrant, Vega tried to suffocate Sanchez, whom he was dating. Sanchez obtained a protective injunction against him on May 2. He was arrested May 10 on charges of domestic battery by strangulation and resisting arrest without violence, records show.

He violated the protective order the next day when he called Sanchez from the Pasco County jail, according to a May 11 arrest report for a charge of violating a domestic violence injunction.

Vega was freed from jail on May 23 after posting bail and was due in court on July 29.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office said it did not know if the two were still living together or were in contact with each other leading up to Sunday.

It was at 2 p.m. that Sanchez contacted a Hernando County taxi company and requested a taxi in the next 30 minutes to an address on Fieldpoint Way in Spring Hill. She told the company that if she didn't answer the door when they arrived, that they should call police. Instead, the taxi company immediately called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Deputies went to the address but didn't find anyone there.

That evening, Hernando deputies said, someone from the taxi company received a text from Sanchez. She texted that she was with Vega and feared for fear for her life. She asked them to call the police. Sanchez also texted that Vega was a trucker and was set to leave Monday morning on a trip.

The caller also told Hernando emergency dispatchers that Sanchez's family tracked her cell phone to the Dollar Tree and that Vega's semi-trailer truck was parked behind the business.

Hernando deputies found the truck still running and tried to contact whoever was inside. Then the driver tried to backup and pull forward, but couldn't because deputies had blocked the truck in. Deputies believed Sanchez was inside the cab but couldn't get in because the doors locked and the windows up, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

The man inside the truck called 911 and told deputies not to enter, that he wanted to wait for his mother to arrive before he surrendered. Some time afterward, a man identified as Vega got out of the truck.

Deputies went into the cab and found Sanchez's body. The Sheriff's Office did not disclose how she died.

Times staff writer Daniel Figueroa IV contributed to this report. Contact Paige Fry at Follow @paigexfry.