A dead man might have killed 12-year-old Lexis Kaye Roberts.
Thomas Steven "Spider" Sanders on Thursday was officially named a suspect in the abduction and death of the Silvestri Junior High School student, whose body was discovered in the woods of rural Louisiana last month.
Sanders, 53, with Lexis and her mother, Suellen Roberts, 31, were reported missing in September after they failed to return from a trip to Arizona. Suellen Roberts remains missing. She is not a suspect in her daughter's death but is considered "endangered," police said.
The FBI and authorities in at least three states are now looking for Sanders, who is considered armed and dangerous.
He's also legally dead.
In 1987, Sanders disappeared, abandoning his wife, Candice, and three sons. Seven years later the state of Mississippi declared him legally dead at Candice's request so that she could collect Social Security benefits for her young children, said Paul Tarver, her current husband.
"She hadn't heard from him in seven or eight years,'' Tarver said from the couple's home in Louisiana. "He left and never came back."
Candice, he said, hasn't seen or heard from Sanders in 23 years and didn't want to be interviewed because the topic of her former husband is too upsetting.
Police have said little about Sanders prior to Thursday's news conference in Alexandria, La., where the FBI formally named him a suspect. Authorities said they simply have little hard information on Sanders, who has effectively lived "off the grid" for more than two decades while working as a welder, a scrap metal collector, a night watchman and a handyman.
Robert King, an FBI agent based in Alexandria, said that while Sanders was listed as legally dead in Mississippi, he was able to move through society because states don't share death certificate information.
"There's no national database," King said. "If he left and established a different identity, that's one way to slip through the cracks."
Although Sanders went by "Tom" or "Thomas" in Mississippi, he began using his middle name, "Steve," more frequently after 1994, police said.
That's how people in Las Vegas knew him, though it's unclear when he came to Nevada or how long he and Suellen Roberts had been dating before they disappeared.
Police said he was employed at Pacific Mini-Storage, near Pecos and Russell roads in southeast Las Vegas, and might have lived at the business, where he did odd jobs and worked as a night watchman. A woman who answered the phone at the business Thursday declined to comment.
King said Sanders might be wanted on theft charges in both Las Vegas and Tennessee and has been accused of violent crimes against children in the past. No details of those allegations were available Thursday, however.
Tarver said Sanders was involved in drugs before he disappeared in 1987, and that there was an incident in the early 1980s involving a child.
"He was a pedophile, but not on paper," he said, adding that Sanders was never arrested or charged as far as he knew.
King said authorities wouldn't make definitive statements about Sanders' background until they gather all available records, he said.
"We're trying to connect the dots, to see what actually is the true story," he said.
What police do know is this:
■ Sept. 3: Sanders bought ammunition in the same caliber as the weapon used to kill Lexis. Detectives found a receipt at his residence, and obtained security camera tapes of the purchase at a Las Vegas Walmart.
■ Sept. 4: Sanders, Roberts and Lexis were spotted at the Bearizona Drive-Thru Wildlife Park in Arizona.
■ Sept. 5: The three were seen at the Grand Canyon. Suellen used her cell phone that day, but never again.
■ Sept. 8: Suellen's mother in Las Vegas reported them missing.
■ Oct. 8: Hunters stumbled onto the remains of a young woman or girl near a trail north of Harrisonburg, La. Authorities say she was shot multiple times, and might have been dead for several weeks.
■ Oct. 26: Authorities using dental records identify the remains as those of Lexis Kaye Roberts.
Catahoula, La. Parish Sheriff James Kelly said detectives have spoken to relatives of Sanders who live near Harrisonburg but have no leads on his whereabouts.
"From the pretty intensive investigation we've done, we really haven't found a family member who has seen him in years," Kelly said.
Sanders was last seen traveling in Suellen Roberts' 2001 Kia Spectra with Nevada license plate 153UCR. Authorities advised that the license plate probably has been removed or replaced, and the vehicle has notable damage on the passenger-side doors.
Suellen Roberts was employed as a clerical worker at a medical supply business, but the company said she hadn't worked there since January. Lexis was just 10 days into the eighth-grade at Silvestri when she disappeared. A neighbor at the Southeast Las Vegas apartment complex where they lived said last week that she was aware a mother and daughter lived nearby, but she hadn't seen them for some time.
Sanders was described as being 5 feet 8 inches tall, 200 pounds with brown eyes. He is missing his upper teeth and only has two lower teeth, and is reported to have a tattoo on his chest and a scar on his stomach. Police are actively searching in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, where Sanders has relatives, but say they have not ruled out his possible return to Nevada.
Tarver said FBI agents visited their home two weeks ago looking for Sanders.
"I don't know why they came here looking for him," Paul Tarver said. "He shows up on my doorstep, he's a dead man. He abandoned three kids, in my eyes."
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at 383-0281. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.