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Accused killer caught after applying for unemployment during pandemic

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Alabama officials were poised Friday to release an accused killer and fugitive who was caught because he applied for unemployment after fleeing Detroit police earlier this year.

Federal prosecutors in Detroit blocked the release of Gary Michael Lightfoot III, 21, Friday by filing a criminal case charging him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. The criminal charge starts a process that is expected to end with Lightfoot being brought back to Detroit amid a continuing homicide investigation.

The charge was filed six months after a deadly encounter at a CITGO gas station near Fairfield Street and Fenkell Avenue in Detroit.

Lightfoot got into a disagreement with Jeffrey Austin, 59, according to an FBI agent's affidavit filed in federal court Friday. Lightfoot allegedly ordered Austin to get into his car, but Austin refused.

"I'll be back!" Lightfoot said, according to the FBI.

He returned minutes later with an assault rifle and shot Austin several times, the FBI agent wrote. Austin died at the scene.

Then, Lightfoot disappeared as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified nationwide and ravaged the economy. 

The month Austin died, Michigan had the nation's third highest unemployment rate at 21.2%, trailing Nevada's 25.3% and Hawaii's 22.6%. The country's jobless rate was 13.3%. 

Within weeks, an unemployment claim was filed for Lightfoot as deputies with the U.S. Marshals Service hunted for him, armed with an arrest warrant for first-degree murder and a gun crime.

In July, investigators learned about about an unemployment benefits claim filed on Lightfoot's behalf, according to the FBI. The application listed his mother's address in Detroit.

So investigators visited her.

"Lightfoot's mother advised she was unaware of his whereabouts," the FBI agent wrote. "The (Marshals Service) later learned that Lightfoot's mother arranged for utilities to be established at an apartment in Alabama."

Investigators then learned Lightfoot's girlfriend and his child lived in an apartment in Montgomery, Ala. Last month, deputies found Lightfoot and arrested him at the apartment, according to the affidavit.

Lightfoot has been in the Montgomery County Jail since Oct. 23 and waived extradition to Detroit on Oct. 26. He was supposed to be extradited within 10 days, a deadline that expired at midnight Friday.

Officials with the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office asked for more time but Alabama officials refused, according to the FBI affidavit.

The FBI agent learned about Lightfoot's impending release Thursday, leading prosecutors to file the criminal case Friday morning.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews