LEE COUNTY — In a crime-ridden section of North Fort Myers, a team of U.S. Marshals descended Wednesday on a duplex in the middle of the night.
Peeking through a window, task force members spotted Billy Ray Retherford Jr., wanted for two Southwest Florida killings, sitting on a couch.
As the team took the house, Retherford raised a handgun at law enforcement officials, U.S. Marshals said. Before Retherford could shoot, task force members opened fire, killing the 42-year-old murder suspect and ending a two-week manhunt for the second suspect in a slaying near San Carlos Park.
With Retherford's death, Lee County sheriff's officials said they have located both suspects in the July 24 killing of Debra Striano, 55. Last week, deputies arrested Retherford's nephew, Dustin Jaye, 23, an alleged accomplice in the botched robbery.
Deputies, however, couldn't get to Retherford before the death of Gregory F. Imhoff, 61, whose body was found at a North Fort Myers residence hours before the shootout, about two miles from where Retherford was killed. Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott said in a statement Imhoff's slaying is "believed to be directly related" to Retherford, though investigators haven't tabbed Retherford the killer.
Striano's live-in boyfriend, Russell Myers Jr., said family, friends and neighbors were relieved Wednesday to hear about Retherford's death.
"When you live by the sword, you die by the sword. That was my reaction," Myers said. "I thought to myself that at least Debra is getting a small measure of justice."
For two weeks, deputies tracked Retherford after finding physical evidence linking the career criminal to Striano's killing.
Deputies executed a search warrant for Retherford's North Fort Myers home, where they found a checkbook, two bank deposit slips and several rings belonging to Striano and Myers. They also found bloody clothes and shoes with treads matching a bloody footprint at the scene, an arrest report said.
A Crime Stoppers tip ultimately led deputies to a duplex set about 250 yards back from Laurel Drive, located about five miles west of the Bayshore Drive exit off Interstate 75. Retherford never fired at deputies.
U.S. Marshals Deputy J.P. Kinsey said darkness wasn't a factor when deciding whether to apprehend Retherford.
"It doesn't matter if it's day or night, rain or shine. We go get the bad guy," Kinsey said. "He chose his own fate. He could have given up but he chose not to."
Sandra McDonough, who lived next door to Imhoff, described the 61-year-old as a generous man well known in their neighborhood.
Imhoff, a retired contractor from Wisconsin, tended to about 40 homes of seasonal residents during the summer, including the house where he was killed, McDonough said. She surmised that Imhoff happened upon Retherford on Tuesday while maintaining that house.
"It's just bad luck he happened to go there," McDonough said. "He was such a nice person."
Officials haven't said why Retherford was at the North Fort Myers residence where the shootout took place, but neighbors derided the landlord for allowing crime to fester at the home. In the past two years alone, deputies have responded to 145 calls for service at 1231 Laurel Drive, including a few for theft and assault.
"That duplex area up there is nothing but drugs and prostitution," said George Schiller, 65, a neighborhood watch captain who lives a few houses down on Laurel Drive. "This has been going on since about 2004. The sheriff is well aware of it, but I think something has to be done with the landlord."
Myers said deputies spoke with both suspects — Retherford and Jaye — after Striano's killing but didn't have probable cause for their arrests. His statement is backed by Jaye's sister, Ashley, who told NBC-2 the suspects were questioned by deputies.
Sheriff's officials declined to comment on whether Jaye and Retherford were interrogated.
"At the time, they just didn't have the evidence to hold them. It was so right after the fact," Myers said, adding the assigned detectives tirelessly worked the case.
Myers said he remained confident deputies would track down Retherford, harboring a gut feeling that the suspect remained in North Fort Myers. That Retherford was shot and killed didn't cause Myers distress, particularly because it spares trial costs and relieves nervous neighbors worried about Retherford returning to their Three Oaks neighborhood.
"Honestly, you know, it would have been nice to have taken him alive for questioning, but they knew he was at the scene," Myers said.
Myers has moved back into his San Carlos Park home and is tending to the couple's border collie, Scruffy, who had sutures removed Tuesday from six cuts he suffered during the robbery. Myers said he's been in daily contact with Striano's family, which applauded task force members for taking down Retherford.
"They thought he got what he deserved," Myers said.