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Experts doubt that alligators killed boy, 16, found dead last week at Lake Maggiore

ST. PETERSBURG - Nearly a week after the body of 16-year-old Jarvis Deliford was found surrounded by alligators on Lake Maggiore, police still don't know how he died.

Most wildlife experts interviewed, though, say it's unlikely Deliford was killed in an alligator attack.

"My guess is the boy died of other causes," said Kent Vliet, an alligator biologist at the University of Florida. "These alligators just opportunistically found the body and were feeding on it."

Deliford disappeared June 29, the same day he left a Clearwater juvenile detention center where he was sent for violating probation he had received in an earlier burglary arrest.

READ MORE: Body found near alligators in St. Petersburg lake identified as 16-year-old boy

The teen cut off his ankle monitor that evening in his mother's home on Paris Avenue and ran away, police said.

His body was found about a week later, around 8 a.m. July 4, near a fishing dock along the southeastern bank of Lake Maggiore. About 10 alligators had surrounded it and were dragging the corpse south, witnesses said.

Police initially said they had found "no obvious signs of foul play" or homicidal violence. Detectives are still waiting for an official autopsy report, which could take six to eight weeks or longer.

But based on witness accounts and police statements, most experts interviewed by the Times say the Lake Maggiore alligators probably happened upon Deliford's body while scavenging for food.

Alligators are territorial and hunt alone, said New Port Richey trapper Daniel Altimus. They don't like to share the mosquitofish, raccoons and other creatures that make up their diets.

If that many alligators had surrounded the body, Altimus said, it's likely a sign of scavenging rather than hunting.

Alligators regularly scavenge, said Vliet with UF, and may crawl 100 yards or more out of the water to grab dead animals.

Several alligators were seen dragging Deliford's body across the surface of Lake Maggiore, indicating he was found dead near shore, said Lakeland trapper David Blaesing.

"Anything meat," Blaesing said. "That's all they're ever looking for."

Even in healthy lakes with ample prey, Vliet said, alligators won't hesitate to scavenge for dead animals. Deliford may have been pulled from the land into the water after he died.

"That is entirely possible," said Sandra Bentil, a St. Petersburg police spokeswoman. "That is why we're waiting for a complete report from the medical examiner."

For now, it's "hard to say" what the cause of death was, Bentil said. Perhaps it was a medical emergency, she said.

Deliford's sister, Laporsha Smalls, told the Times on Saturday she thinks someone killed her brother.

"He doesn't go to beaches, he doesn't even play around water," said Smalls, 27. "He doesn't know how to swim."

One expert, though - Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Florida - advised against ruling out an alligator attack.

When alligators kill, they frequently stow their prey underwater and away from flies, vultures or other alligators. They leave meals rotting under rocks, docks or submerged trees.

Alligators sometimes fight over those meals, Mazzotti said, and aggressive alligators try to steal from younger or weaker alligators.

Deliford could have been killed by an alligator, dragged underwater and then found by other alligators, Mazzotti said.

"The way they scavenge could be fighting over it," he said. "It could be either or."

Still, he added, fatal alligator attacks in Florida are rare.

Only a postmortem examination will shed light on the cause of death, Mazzotti said. Investigators might look for blood that accumulated in wounds, he said, which would mean the heart was still pumping as an alligator bit down.

That evidence was likely difficult to collect, though, given the body's decomposition, he said. Police initially said they couldn't determine a race or gender.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission trapped and killed a 6-foot alligator and 10-foot alligator at Lake Maggiore last week as they gathered evidence in the case. A necropsy found that the 10-foot alligator had "involvement" with Deliford, the commission said.

An alligator trapper is still monitoring and working the area, Ashley Tyer, a commission spokeswoman, said Tuesday in an email to the Times.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Sam Ogozalek at sogozalek@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3430. Follow@SamOgozalek .

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