Gary Levin | Missing Florida Lyft driver’s car was found with murdered suspect

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL– The car of a missing 74-year-old Florida Lyft driver has been found in North Carolina and the man who was driving it is wanted in connection with a murder in southwest Florida last week, authorities said Friday.

Lyft driver Gary Levin has not been heard from since Monday when his family says he was picking up a customer in Delray Beach, Fla. His red 2022 Kia Stinger was spotted that day in Miami and then in a rural area north of Lake Okeechobee and later in northern Florida, officials said.

The vehicle was seen in North Carolina Thursday night after the US Marshal’s Regional Task Force asked authorities to keep an eye out. Matthew Flores was arrested after a police chase through three counties, Rutherford County, North Carolina, Sheriff Aaron Ellenburg told The Associated Press.

Ellenburg said North Carolina state troops used stopping sticks to stop the vehicle at Ellenboro. The sheriff said Flores briefly fled on foot before he was arrested and taken to a hospital for a check-up. He was later booked in the county jail and the vehicle was taken to a safe location, the sheriff said.

Flores, 35, was being held on a probation violation and $615,000 bail on North Carolina charges including evading law enforcement, speeding and drunk driving.

According to news outlets, he appeared at a brief hearing in North Carolina, where a judge set bail at $2 million and set another hearing for February 22. Flores would eventually be extradited to Florida, where he is a suspect in a Jan. 24 murder – nearly a week before Levin went missing on Monday. It was not initially known whether Flores had a lawyer who could speak for him.

Authorities are investigating how Flores got hold of the missing Lyft driver’s car — Levin’s family said they don’t know if Flores was the passenger Levin picked up in Delray Beach on Monday. John Eason, the police chief in Wauchula, Fla., told The AP in a phone interview that officers are traveling to North Carolina in hopes of questioning Flores about the Jan. 24 murder and the missing Lyft driver.

“Our primary concern right now is to find out and identify where Mr. Levin is,” Eason said. “A lot depends on whether the suspect cooperates with us.”

Flores is facing charges of second-degree murder and other charges stemming from the deadly shooting of Jose Carlos Martinez last month in Wauchula. A woman who Eason said helped Flores escape from police, Stephanie Velgara, is accused of having a hand in the Martinez murder after the fact.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Velgara has an attorney speaking on her behalf. Eason said she remained in custody Friday at the Hardee County Jail in Florida.

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 a statement emailed on Friday, Lyft said: “Our thoughts are with Mr. Levin’s family and loved ones at this deeply worrying time. We have been in contact with his family to offer our support and law enforcement to assist in their investigation.”

But Levin’s daughter, Lindsay DiBetta, told the AP the family learned Levin was taking an unknown customer to Okeechobee, a small town on the edge of Lake Okeechobee, and ended the drive sometime after 4 p.m. Monday.

She said the family was told by Lyft that the ride would end sometime after 4 p.m. He also spoke to friends on the phone around 4 p.m. that day and “everything seemed fine,” Dibetta said.

But something went wrong almost immediately, she said. His phone was turned off and no one has heard from him since.

DiBetta said the Lyft gig was great for Levin, who loves to tell dad jokes and often tells them over and over. “It was the perfect setup for him. He would attract a new audience every ride,” she said.

She said her father was a body salesman before retiring to Florida and that his car was “his baby.”

“What happened to my father? Did (Flores) harm my father?” said DiBetta. “We just don’t know.”

Copyright © 2023 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Gary Levin | Missing Florida Lyft driver’s car was found with murdered suspect

Laura Coffey

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