LI trucker's hitchhiker sought in murder

Manuel Velasco, 37, talks on the phone near

Manuel Velasco, 37, talks on the phone near his truck in Elmont. Velasco had picked up hitchhiker Charles R. Kelley, 52, and later learned he was wanted for questioning in a murder case in Tennessee. (Sept. 21, 2012) (Credit: Chris Ware)

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A Valley Stream truck driver was stunned to learn Friday that the hitchhiker he'd befriended, even taking him home for dinner with his family, is a convicted sex offender wanted for questioning in a Tennessee murder.

Manuel Velasco, 37, was Long Island-bound about 4:40 p.m. Thursday when Port Authority cops pulled over his truck after it went through a George Washington Bridge toll plaza without his E-ZPass registering.

Officer Steve Pisciotta was writing a summons when Officer Ray Rodriguez asked Velasco about his log books, where he'd traveled and where he was going. The driver log didn't account for a passenger, said Al Della Fave, a Port Authority police spokesman.

Police questioned the pair separately. Velasco told police his passenger was a hitchhiker he'd picked up Sept. 16 in Tennessee. The hitchhiker identified himself as Charles Randy Kelley, 52, of Blaine, Tenn., and said he worked for Velasco's company.

"Now the officers don't like what they hear," Della Fave said. A quick computer check showed there were warrants for Kelley in Jefferson County, Tenn., for a probation violation in connection with charges of theft and forgery, Della Fave said.

Another warrant from Cocke County, Tenn., Sheriff's Department showed "he's a person of interest in a murder case there."

The pair traveled Velasco's rounds for four days, Kelley helping with deliveries. On Wednesday night, as he had done the previous night, Velasco said, Kelley dined with his family -- including daughters ages 18 months and 13, and a son age 3.

The next day the pair collected a load of sausage from the Bronx and delivered it to Carteret, N.J., before being stopped on their return.

Velasco told Newsday: "The last thing I expected was for this guy to be a killer. He was so respectful. He didn't even curse."

Velasco, in trucking since 1997, said he gave Kelley food and $50 along the way. "I bought him food because he had no money. I gave him my clothes. I paid for him to take a shower at a truck stop. He needed my help so I helped."

Velasco's wife had warned against letting the stranger into their house, so Kelley slept in the truck out front, Velasco said.

Kelley, the first hitchhiker Velasco said he's ever picked up, was being held Friday in New Jersey's Bergen County jail awaiting extradition. A knife found in Velasco's truck glovebox had been retrieved as possible evidence, Della Fave said.

Jefferson County Sheriff G.W. "Bud" McCoig confirmed Kelley is wanted in connection with the May homicide of Johnny Arwood, in whose home Kelley had been staying.

"From interviewing witnesses and neighbors there the night before, it's believed there was an argument involving Mr. Arwood and Mr. Kelley," McCoig said. Kelley was last seen leaving in Arwood's tan 1980 Ford F-150 pickup.

"He has a lengthy and violent criminal history," McCoig said. Records show Kelley was sentenced to 12 years for aggravated child abuse and has prior convictions for forgery, theft, grand larceny and had his parole revoked three times.

Told of the child abuse conviction, Velasco said: "Wow . . . I put my family in jeopardy. I was just trying to help someone."

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