Saundra Amrhein and Bill Duryea of the St. Petersburg Times have issued the following report:
The club was dark and the music loud when Nicholas Stegall's girlfriend made her way out of the mosh pit Thursday night at the Masquerade nightclub in Ybor City.
During a heavy metal concert by the band CORROSION OF CONFORMITY, his girlfriend and another woman in their group, Wendy Laskas, knocked over a man in a white tank top in the mosh pit, Stegall recalled later.
"He gets up, they shake hands," said Stegall, 20. The man even handed the two tattooed women a business card for a tattoo parlor. "He says it's all good."
But things were about to turn very bad, even deadly, for Stegall and his group of co-workers and friends, as Ybor City's nightlife took another turn toward violence.
Within 20 minutes, the man in the tank top would stab four people, killing one, before running out of the club brandishing a knife.
But his business card gave police a clue about his identity.
After the first brief incident in the mosh pit, Stegall said, the two women headed to a bar at the back of the club to rejoin their group.
About 20 minutes later, around 11:30 p.m., a woman who was with the man in the tank top ran up to Stegall's girlfriend and started yelling at her, he said.
Wendy Laskas jumped in, Stegall recalled. She and the woman tussled, falling to the ground.
As Laskas' husband, Thomas, and other men in the group struggled to break it up, the man in the white tank top appeared "out of nowhere" in the darkness and punched Thomas Laskas, Stegall said.
"He was hitting him but as he was hitting him, he was stabbing him," Stegall said.
The man turned on Wendy Laskas and Stegall before running out the door, Stegall said.
Someone began pulling Thomas Laskas toward a hallway and the light.
"I was like, "Oh, my God.' I noticed blood was everywhere," Stegall said.
Thomas Laskas, 29, died of multiple stab wounds at Tampa General Hospital. His wife, Wendy, 30, was in fair condition.
Stegall was treated for a puncture wound to the abdomen and was released.
Dallas T. Ashe, a bartender at the Masquerade, sustained minor injuries and was treated at the scene.
As friends mourned the loss of Thomas Laskas of Seminole Heights, their artistic friend who was a "soul mate" to his wife, police searched for the man in the white tank top.
Within 21/2 hours of the killing, police in Tarpon Springs were knocking on the door of the owner of Rat-a-Tac-Tat, the tattoo parlor in Dunedin whose name appeared on the business card the man had handed out at the Masquerade.
"Did I do something wrong?" Russell Ramsey asked the officers through the door.
"I let them in," he said later. "We went into the kitchen. I'm still in my underwear."
"They started asking me questions about my cards. Did I have someone at Masquerade last night?" Ramsey, 44, said.
Ramsey knew his only employee had been there and he gave police the man's name. The Times is not identifying the man because he had not been apprehended or charged with any crimes Friday.
"He'd been talking about the concert for two weeks," Ramsey said. "We listened to all their CDs all day long."
Ramsey knew his employee carried a knife, a 31/2-inch lock-blade with a black plastic or rubber handle. "He pulled it out in the shop and used it on the machines," he said.
The man called Ramsey about 10:30 a.m. Friday.
"I didn't let on that I knew anything," Ramsey said. "He told me he was hungover and he'd see me later."
Friday evening, Tampa police detectives were still looking for the man. They asked Ramsey to try to reach his employee on the man's cell phone.
"He don't answer," Ramsey said.
Police would not discuss details of the case.
The Masquerade had been one-quarter full Thursday night, with about 250 customers and staff members, said Luke Lirot, an attorney representing the club. "It wasn't a crowded night."
But even so, it took a few minutes for the band to realize what was happening and stop playing, witnesses said.
CORROSION OF CONFORMITY posted a statement on its Web site Friday that said, among other things, "It's sad that people can't come together for a good time listening to music without something tragic happening."
People who are familiar with the Masquerade nightclub defended it Friday.
"I've never seen any problems," said Sean Smith, 30, the housemate of one of the victims, Dallas Ashe, a bartender at the club. "I've never seen any fighting or people getting thrown out."
Thomas DeGeorge, the manager, "runs a tight ship," Lirot said. "The club has operated problem-free for quite some time."
The same cannot be said for Ybor City as a whole.
Two weeks ago, police shot and killed a man and wounded three others after two plainclothes officers interrupted an apparent armed robbery.
In October, a man who tried to break up a fight at the New World Brewery in Ybor was stabbed in the heart and died.
Lirot, the lawyer, said this kind of violence is more likely to happen "if you have a very popular area with many places of public assembly that are appealing to males 18-35. It brings with it a higher probability of this kind of situation."
Friday night, the Masquerade was open for business.
"It seems like it's back to normal," said Jonathan Milton, a saxophonist and St. Petersburg Times employee whose band, THE ANODYNE PROJECT, was scheduled to play at the club Friday night. "Nobody seems to be talking about it. But you feel a little bit of the tension."
Stegall said he and the Laskas couple were at the club with a few other people from their tattoo shop, the Mean Machine Tattoo Co. on S Dale Mabry Highway.
He said Wendy and Thomas Laskas had worked at the shop for about four years.
"They were like soul mates, for sure," he said.
They both painted, using water, charcoal, oil, acrylic, he said.
"We have it all over the shop," he said. The couple had just returned from a vacation hiking in North Carolina, he said. Thomas was the stepfather to Wendy's 13-year-old daughter.
The family loved nature, said neighbor Terrell Williams, 46.
Friends were trying to cope with the news Friday.
Stegall said the Mean Machine's owner, who was among the group at the bar, closed for the weekend.
"I don't know how I'm going to go back in there," Stegall said.