By Holbrook Mohr and Mary Foster/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — After the skeletal remains of a slain Las Vegas girl were found in the woods of central Louisiana, the investigation led authorities to a startling conclusion: The man suspected of kidnapping her was supposed to have died 16 years earlier.
As federal and state investigators mount a nationwide manhunt for Thomas Steven Sanders, they are still trying to piece together how a man who abandoned his family in 1987 and was declared dead in 1994 lived unnoticed for years. Even though authorities arrested him on multiple charges during that time, they never realized he had been declared dead.
Sanders’ relatives in Louisiana haven’t heard from him in years, said Toney Edwards, an investigator for the Catahoula Parish Sheriff’s Department.
“He dropped out of his life, but maintained a criminal record throughout that time,” Edwards said.
A federal warrant was issued Thursday accusing Sanders of kidnapping 12-year-old Lexis Roberts, whose skeleton was found by hunters early last month. Her 31-year-old mother, Suellen Roberts, is missing. Officials say she is not a suspect in her daughters death — and they hope she has not met with foul play.
“We still consider her a missing person,” Edwards said.
A few details about Sanders’ movements are beginning to emerge.
Investigators know he lived in several states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia and Nevada.
Sanders worked as a laborer, a welder and a scrap metal collector, but left little record behind, Edwards said. He lived under his own name but avoided putting that name down in writing, investigators said.
“He didn’t have utilities turned on in his name, didn’t have credit cards, didn’t sign up for stuff,” Edwards said. “He was out of general society.”
The last time Sanders’ family saw him was in June 1987. His wife, Candice Sanders, divorced him the next year, claiming she was in poverty and was apparently hoping to collect benefits to support their three children.
She was granted a divorce in February 1988 “on the statutory grounds of habitual, cruel and inhuman treatment,” according to a divorce decree obtained by The Associated Press. The divorce records said the couple married in Feb. 2, 1979, and lived together until June 28, 1987.
Sanders’ parents, brother and ex-wife petitioned a Mississippi court in July 1994 to have him declared dead, according to court records obtained by The AP.
Mississippi officials would not release a copy of Sanders’ death certificate, citing privacy issues.
There is no requirement to report a death to the Social Security Administration, said Wesley Davis, a spokesman for the agency.
“We’re concerned with benefits received illegally,” Davis said. “A younger person would probably not be receiving benefits so if he kept paying to that account it would not attract attention.”
Despite the Mississippi death certificate, Sanders was able to move about easily, said FBI agent Robert King.
“There’s no national death database,” King said. “He could have established a new identity or maybe just stuck to the old one and still slipped through the cracks.”
Sanders used Tom and Steve as first names over the years, and the nickname “Spider,” investigators said.
He did collect a string of arrests during the period, Edwards said.
According to records obtained by the Associated Press, his arrests included possession of drug paraphernalia and a number of traffic and motor vehicle incidents, all in Tennessee. He was sentenced to two years in Georgia for simple battery. State and federal authorities said some of the charges involved minors, but they refused to elaborate.
Although suspects are supposed to be fingerprinted when arrested and the prints submitted to the FBI national database, the practice is not always followed, said Ronnie Jones, a professor of criminal justice at Southeastern Louisiana University, and consultant to law enforcement agencies.
In many places, he said, “you can just sign for a misdemeanor arrest and not be taken to jail. And if it’s a relatively minor offense sometimes the practice is allowed to slide.”
In Nevada, Sanders met Suellen Roberts and her daughter Lexis a few months ago, Robert’s grandmother told investigators. The trio was in Williams and Flagstaff Ariz., and the Grand Canyon National Park over the Labor Day weekend, according to the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office.
Hunters found Lexis’ remains in the deep woods of Catahoula Parish in early October. There was evidence she had been shot.
“From the beginning we thought it must have been a local person because it was such a remote area,” Edwards said.
Investigators got a break when a Catahoula woman called to tell them of a missing Las Vegas woman and her daughter, Edwards said. “She said the man they were with was from Louisiana.”
Before he was declared dead Sanders had spent a lot of time in Louisiana, Edwards said, including time in Catahoula Parish.
Officials said security cameras showed Sanders buying ammunition on Sept. 3 at a Wal-Mart in Las Vegas. The bullets he bought were consistent with the weapon used to kill Lexis, police said.
Sanders, who had long white hair and a white beard, cut his hair short and dyed it black and shaved his beard before he left Las Vegas, Edwards said.
“We’re hoping somebody will recognize him sooner or later,” Edwards said. “He’s going to have to eat, find a way to pay for things. We’re hoping he’ll surface.”