By Tom Iacuzio
A 23-year-old former Flagler College student was found dead in his burned out Lincolnville apartment on Oct. 26.
Police identified the victim as Thomas H. Graber of 91 Washington St.
St. Augustine Police Sgt. Barry Fox said Graber had been stabbed and the fire was set to cover up the crime.
According to police, two arrests have been made in case. The two suspects are Emmanuel Axavier Head, 19, who was charged with murder, arson and tampering with physical evidence, and Vincent Sterling Houston, 19, who was charged with accessory to murder and accessory to arson.
Police believe that theft may have been the apparant motive in the murder.
According to Flagler College, Graber was a senior political science major from Greeneville, Ohio. He had been a student at Flagler since September 2002 and while Graber began the fall semester as a student, he was not enrolled at the time of the incident.
Fire Marshall John Rayno said the body was found after they responded to a fire call.
“When we got there, there was a little bit of smoke showing upstairs,” Rayno said. “The guys went through and extinguished the fire. After a search, they found another small fire in the front room and then they found the body.”
Rayno also said the fire was intentionally set. “You have two unconnected separate fires,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen. Since the gentleman was murdered, we assume the fire was started to cover up the crime.”
In an interview with The St. Augustine Record, Fox said that the two suspects were acquainted with the victim even though the men only arrived in St. Augustine two or three weeks ago via Greyhound bus from San Diego.
“They’ve been living in a car, in motel rooms,” he said. “They were all over.”
The two men were picked up by police walking down U.S. 1 North, less than a mile from the scene.
A neighbor, who knew Graber and asked not to be identified, called him a “nice, quiet kid” and had even been invited to his house for a barbecue.
“He told me his parents sent him down here because they wanted him to learn independence,” the neighbor said. “I would always see him on his bike with his blue backpack going to school.”
The neighbor said that they watched as the events unfolded.
“I saw smoke coming out of the house and I was like, ‘Why is Thomas letting the alarm go off like that?’” the neighbor said. “Then I saw the smoke billowing out of the doors. That’s when the fire department showed up.”
Lincolnville is an area known to be a haven for off campus students because of its proximity to campus. Kara Pound, a senior at Flagler, has lived on Lovett Street for the past 17 months.
“I was scared because I heard about this,” she said. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
Pound said that her mother has never been comfortable with her living in the area.
“My mom has mentioned putting the house up for sale, which we were going to do anyway,” Pound said. She mentioned that because of recent events she might put the house up for sale as soon as the beginning of November.
Al Howard, director of campus security, said that this was an isolated incident unrelated to the campus.
“It was a random act of violence off campus, so there was no need to heighten security,” he said. “We are always on alert for transients who don’t belong on campus.”
In a statement issued on Oct. 27, William T. Abare Jr., president of Flagler College, said “Grief counselors are available in the Counseling Center to meet with students and other members of the college community who may need support.” He added, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Graber family.”
Police said this was the first homicide in St. Augustine since 2001. The only other time a Flagler student was murdered in St. Johns County was in 1991.
Graber’s neighbor could not help but express sadness over the events.
“They didn’t have to kill him,” the neighbor said. “He didn’t bother nobody. Nobody deserves to die like that.”
The neighbor expressed astonishment that something like that happened in the Lincolnville neighborhood.
“It’s a peaceful community. I’ve lived here all my life,” the neighbor said. “Then something like this happens right in front of your face.”