WAUCHULA, Fla. - A large, multi-agency manhunt east of Wauchula was suspended Sunday night for a suspect who has eluded capture for more than 36 hours after allegedly opening fire on law enforcement during a chase early Saturday morning.
Hardee County Sheriff's spokesperson Randy Dey said Sunday night that the major search for Eleno Suarez, 20, of Frostproof, was called off as night set in, but a small force remained in the area overnight.
According to Polk County Sheriff's spokesperson Donna Wood, Suarez has been and remains at large as a wanted suspect in the armed robbery and carjacking at a home on Oakridge Drive in Frostproof around 10 p.m. on July 22, after eluding arrest Saturday and Sunday.
The manhunt for Suarez began early Saturday morning along Hwy. 64 between Wauchula in Hardee County and Avon Park in Highlands County, where Suarez fled after crashing during a 3-county chase.
The search was called off Saturday, but was triggered again around 10 a.m. after Suarez was seen by multiple people in the area.
A Hardee County Sheriff's official said a person thought to be Suarez went to a migrant worker area along the rural highway, asked for shoes and clothes, and was given them by workers who did not know that he was a wanted suspect.
An attendant at a nearby gas station, Susan Ornelas, said a man who lives along the highway was approached by Suarez, who asked him if he could use his phone.
The man let him and he made a call to an unknown person. HCSO officials confirmed Suarez had made a call, but would not say to whom.
The man became suspicious and called law enforcement after Suarez had left. He was later informed the man was Suarez.
"He knocked on his door, about 9 o'clock in the morning, wanting to use the telephone," Ornelas said, "and I said, 'Why didn't you call the cops? Why didn't you grab this guy?' And he said he didn't know. He let him use the phone and then he called the cops."
The attendant said Suarez was also at her gas station at one point Sunday, hiding in bushes, when he came out, tapped on a vehicle's window and asked for a ride. The driver declined.
Suarez fled from the gas station.
Multiple law enforcement units flooded the area, but Suarez had disappeared. The surrounding area is rural.
Dey said the agencies don't know if Suarez has been able to break the perimeter that was setup Sunday, but Dey said they expect him to try to get back to Frostproof.
"I'm worried about my kids," Wauchula resident Nikki Murphy said, "and I think that a lot of our friends are leaving the area to go stay in different places ... it's scary."
Dey said HCSO deputies will be the patrolling the search area through the night and following up on any leads on Suarez that may come in.
"We are going to be searching for him until we find him," Wood said.
Sheriff's resources, including aerial and K-9 units, from Polk, Hardee and Highlands Counties were involved in the chase and have continued as part of the manhunt.
Dey said an estimate 60 units from those agencies, Wauchula Police and Lake Wales Police Dept., FWC and FHP have taken part in the manhunt in various ways over the past two days.
PCSO is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to Suarez's arrest and prosecution.
Anyone with information about Suarez's whereabouts is urged to contact the Polk County Sheriff's Office at 863-298-6200.
Sheriff Judd: 'Nasty thug' opens fire on deputies during chase; eludes arrest after crash
Wood said Suarez and a group of 5 other men were spotted in the area of the Town Star convenience store at Hwy. 27 and Hwy. 98 in Frostproof around 2 a.m. Saturday.
The group fled the area in a Ford Focus, but were engaged when deputies tried to make a traffic stop in the area of Fort Meade Road and Hopson Road.
Deputies said Suarez fled the area with the group and a chase ensued.
"During the pursuit, Suarez, who was driving the Focus, fired multiple shots at PCSO deputies," Wood said. No deputies were injured.
Law enforcement officers from surrounding law enforcement agencies responded as Suarez fled into Highlands County.
Suarez lost control of the vehicle roughly 12 miles south, in the area of State Road 64 and Hwy. 98 in Avon Park.
Deputies took Suarez's five passengers, but Suarez was able to flee the scene on foot. There were no injuries to any of his passengers.
One of the passengers, Malcolm Lewis, 19, of Frostproof allegedly confessed to deputies he was also involved in the armed home invasion that Suarez is wanted for. A third suspect, Jesus Jaramillo, 21, has previously been arrested in the home invasion and was not involved in the Saturday morning incident.
Lewis is charged by PCSO with robbery with a firearm, armed carjacking, armed burglary and resisting arrest without violence. The Hardee County Sheriff's Office is adding additional charges of resisting without violence and trespassing. He has also been wanted on an outstanding Miami warrant for possession with intent to sell.
Another passenger, Kurt Gaddy,
20, of Frostproof was charged with violation of probation and resisting arrest.
Warren Kennedy, 22, of Dundee; Martin Jaimes, 22, of Lake Wales; and Henry Stegman, 22, of Frostproof are each charged with resisting arrest without violence.
Lewis, Gaddy, Kennedy, Jaimes, and Stegman were booked into the Hardee County Jail.
Suarez is now wanted for attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. He is considered armed and dangerous, Wood said.
"We are asking for your help in locating a very dangerous subject," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. "If you will shoot at armed deputies, you will shoot at anyone. We need him in custody before anyone else falls victim to this nasty thug. If you see him or know him call law enforcement immediately -- he is very dangerous."
The Lake Wales Police Department, the Highlands County Sheriff's Office and the Hardee County Sheriff's Office assisted in the pursuit and arrest of the five suspects.