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Missing big rig, driver sought in Florida Turnpike deaths

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - How do you hide a 30-ton, 60-foot-long piece of evidence? That's what Florida highway troopers want to know after searching since Monday for a truck driver and his tractor-trailer wanted in a fatal hit-and-run.

"It's got to be parked, hidden somewhere," said Sergeant Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol. "It's a significant size vehicle that would be very obvious to somebody especially if it's in a location where it's not usually stored."

Mariah King, 19, and Vincent Mathews, 24, were killed Monday evening while changing a flat tire on the shoulder of the Florida Turnpike in St. Lucie County, the Florida Highway Patrol said in a news release.

Sergeant Mark Mysocky said there were no witnesses to the crash but troopers retrieved front and back photos of the empty big rig barreling through a nearby toll plaza.

The photos show a large and deep dent in the front right bumper and headlight assembly of the truck's cab, and investigators concluded the truck veered off the road and hit King, Mathews and their car.

The highway patrol put out a statewide bulletin Monday to all police departments to be on the lookout for the truck and its driver, identified as Robert Bates, 68, of Sanford, Florida.

"It's all over CB (citizens band radio) traffic, all those truckers are talking about it and they're not too happy that one guy's making them look bad as a trucker," Montes said.

Troopers went to Bates' house but neither the truck nor Bates were there, Mysocky said.

Montes said hit-and-run accidents involving big rigs are not unusual because the drivers in some cases do not feel the hit.

"But in this case we do believe with the damage that occurred to the front right of that cab that he does know he hit something," Montes said.

The highway patrol described the tractor as a dark colored 2006 Peterbilt with right front damage with an Illinois license tag of P769293 and a truck number 13335 on the left and right front of the vehicle. The trailer is a Benson flatbed with an Illinois license tag of T495080.

(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Jane Sutton and Tim Dobbyn)

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