TARPON SPRINGS — Days before Christmas, neighbors saw a thin man digging a ditch outside a home on Juanita Way with a toddler at his side.
Later, a person would notice the air conditioner at the house was running nonstop and a foul odor drifted from the walls.
Police arrived New Year’s Day, responding to a call from someone concerned about the welfare of the people inside. The holiday had come and gone, and no one had seen them.
Investigators found a gruesome scene — three people and three dogs dead.
Richard Ivancic, 71, Laura Ivancic, 59, and their son, Nicholas Ivancic, 25, had been killed Dec. 19 or 20, according to authorities. Detectives soon figured out that their daughter Jamie Ivancic, 21, was missing.
The thin man, they said, was her husband, 25-year-old Shelby Svensen.
They tracked him to Ohio, where on Thursday authorities arrested him next to Laura Ivancic’s SUV. He did not fight, they said, and later confessed to the slayings. Investigators took his children, ages 2 and 3, to the local department for children and families.
Svensen, according to records and two people who know him, is a shifty man who has married a number of times and goes by several names. He’s had run-ins with the law, including an allegation of domestic violence, and has sought psychological treatment before. Tarpon Springs police identified him as Shelby John Nealy, but Ohio records show he changed his name years ago.
Jamie Ivancic was still missing late Friday, according to police. But after Tarpon deputies questioned Nealy in Ohio, officers in neighboring Pasco County descended on a home in Port Richey with a forensic anthropology team. They say the investigation is tied to the Tarpon Springs slayings and may involve a body.
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The Ivancic family moved to Florida four or five years ago for retirement, said Laura’s brother, James Zindroski.
Richard had worked for the power company in Ohio and Laura, a former pharmacy technician, had been a stay-at-home mom to foster children.
They eventually adopted two of those kids: Nicholas and Jamie.
Richard liked to golf, Zindroski said, and had children from a previous marriage in Florida. Laura had issues with her skin and allergies that they hoped the southern air would soothe.
They were happy, living with Nicholas, who worked in air conditioning, Zindroski said.
“They were just enjoying life,” he said.
Jamie Ivancic and Svensen bounced around, as far as Zindroski knew, but they had spent time back in Ohio, living with an aunt and ailing grandmother. Zindroski, a former police chief in Ohio, knew little of Svensen other than that he had spent time in and out of psychiatric centers and had a criminal record.
“He was always kind of a mysterious kind of kid," Zindroski said. “You never really could pin him down with anything.”
Records in Ohio show he had faced charges including burglary and robbery. At the time of his arrest Thursday in Lakewood, Ohio, police said, he was subject to a domestic violence warrant from nearby Broadview Heights, dating to October 2016.
The police report from that incident shows emergency responders were called to a home where Svensen, then 23, was having suicidal thoughts. They found him and Jamie Ivancic sitting in the basement. She was crying, according to the report, and Svensen said, "I need help. I need to go to the hospital."
Through tears, Ivancic told investigators she did not want Svensen to get in trouble, but described how he had choked her, thrown her against a wall and bitten her in the shoulder.
Ivancic told investigators she was 16 weeks pregnant with their second child. She worried she was bleeding internally and could lose the baby.
Svensen later told a physician that Ivancic had hit and choked him, too, and she was also charged with domestic violence, according to the police report. She already had another domestic violence case pending at the time.
The couple had married in Palm Beach County in November 2015, records show. Svensen is listed as Shelby John Neally, with two Ls.
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Police have not said why they believe Svensen killed his in-laws or provided an exact timeline of the days surrounding the incident.
Investigators said they found transactions under his name at a GameStop in Palm Harbor and at a local McDonald’s and Home Depot. Tina Bartek, a store leader at the GameStop, said Svensen came in Dec. 16 — three or four days before the slayings — and received $100 in cash for about 20 videos. He had two children with him.
Not long after the slayings, Svensen was apparently back in Ohio. His ex-wife, Kaitlyn Farahay, told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that he had stopped by her home Christmas Eve to drop off books for their 6-year-old daughter. It was a rare visit, she said. Svensen did not pay child support and did not talk to her from the time the girl was 2 until she was 4 or 5.
The two had married in 2012, she said, around the time she was pregnant. She was 17. They separated a month later, and divorced a year after that.
When she saw him Christmas Eve, she said, he was driving a reddish SUV. He told her a cousin in Texas had bought it for him.
“I think he breathes lies," said Farahay, 23.
She did not know Ivancic, she said, but Svensen had told her last year his wife killed herself. He had also once mentioned his in-laws, she recalled.
“He told me that he hated the brother and the parents are mean to him or something, but he never went in depth much," Farahay said.
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Svensen early Friday was being held in jail in Lakewood, Ohio. Police there listed him as unemployed and said he lived in the city.
Tarpon Springs officers later said he will face at least three charges of first-degree murder. They declined to take questions during a brief news conference. They did not say how the Ivancices died or provide further information about the ditch Svensen was digging outside the home at 1954 Juanita Way.
A neighbor, Barbara Bormes, said the couple kept to themselves, though she had seen Laura walk their Bichon Frises.
Bormes had seen the hole beside the house, she said, and assumed her neighbors were having plumbing or electrical problems.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Justin Trombly and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.