Missing Florida Lyft driver's car found with slaying suspect
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The car owned by a missing 74-year-old Florida Lyft driver was found in North Carolina and the man who was driving it is wanted in connection with a homicide last week in southwest Florida, authorities said Friday.
Lyft driver Gary Levin hasn't been heard from since Monday, when his family says he picked up a customer in Delray Beach, Florida. His red 2022 Kia Stinger was spotted in Miami that day, and then in a rural area north of Lake Okeechobee and later in north Florida, officials said.
The vehicle was seen Thursday evening in North Carolina after the U.S. Marshal's regional task force asked authorities to be on the lookout. Matthew Flores was arrested following a police chase through three counties, Rutherford County, North Carolina Sheriff Aaron Ellenburg told The Associated Press.
Ellenburg said North Carolina state troopers used stop sticks to halt the vehicle in Ellenboro. The sheriff said Flores fled briefly on foot before he was apprehended and taken to a hospital for an evaluation. He was later booked into the county jail, and the vehicle was taken to a secure location, the sheriff said.
Flores, 35, was being held on no bond for a parole violation and a $615,000 bond for charges in North Carolina that include eluding law enforcement, speeding and intoxicated driving.
He appeared at a brief hearing in North Carolina where a judge set bail at $2 million and scheduled another hearing Feb. 22, according to news outlets. Flores would eventually be extradited to Florida, where he is a suspect in a slaying on Jan. 24 — nearly a week before Levin went missing on Monday. It was not immediately known whether Flores has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf.
Authorities are investigating how Flores obtained the missing Lyft driver's car — Levin's family said they do not know whether Flores was the passenger Levin picked up in Delray Beach on Monday. John Eason, the police chief in Wauchula, Florida, told The AP in a phone interview that officers are heading to North Carolina in hopes of interviewing Flores about the Jan. 24 killing and the missing Lyft driver.
“Our biggest concern at this point is finding and identifying where Mr. Levin is at,” Eason said. “A lot of that depends on whether the suspect cooperates with us.”
Flores is facing a second-degree murder charge and other counts stemming from the fatal shooting last month of Jose Carlos Martinez in Wauchula. A woman who Eason said assisted Flores in fleeing from police, Stephanie Velgara, will be charged with being an accessory after the fact in the Martinez killing.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Velgara has a lawyer to speak on her behalf. Eason said she remained in custody Friday in Florida's Hardee County jail.
Wauchula is about 70 miles (112 kilometers) southeast of Tampa and about 127 miles (204 kilometers) northwest of Levin’s home in Palm Beach Gardens.
In an emailed statement Friday, Lyft said “our thoughts are with Mr. Levin’s family and loved ones during this deeply concerning time. We’ve been in touch with his family to offer our support, as well as with law enforcement to assist with their investigation.”
But Levin’s daughter, Lindsay DiBetta, told the AP the family has learned that Levin took an unknown customer to Okeechobee, a small city on the edge of Lake Okeechobee, and completed the ride sometime after 4 p.m. on Monday.
She said the family was told by Lyft that the ride was completed sometime after 4 p.m. He also spoke to friends by phone around 4 p.m. that day and “all seemed well,” Dibetta said.
But almost immediately, something went wrong, she said. His phone was turned off and no one has heard from him since then.
DiBetta said the Lyft gig was great for Levin, who loves telling dad jokes and often tells them over and over. “It was the perfect set up for him. He would get a new audience every ride,” she said.
She said her father was an auto body salesman before retiring to Florida, and that his car “was his baby.”
“What happened to my dad? Did (Flores) harm my dad?" DiBetta said. “We just don’t know.”
Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Freida Frisaro And Curt Anderson, The Associated Press