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Where did she go?

LITHIA

She slept late last Sunday.

After her daughter and grandbaby had moved back to town, after her sister had flown in — surprise! — from Italy, her husband figured she was exhausted.

"I didn't think anything of it," he later told the police.

Margherita "Meg" Tanner woke just after noon and pulled on an old pair of jeans, a blouse with pink flowers, and flip-flops. She walked into the living room of their mobile home and slumped onto the sofa.

Their son's girlfriend was there with their two grandsons, ages 4 and 1. While the girlfriend did laundry in the kitchen, Meg, 50, and her husband, Mark, 53, played with the boys.

Soon Meg went outside for a cigarette. Minutes passed. "She must be getting hot out there," Mark thought. He stretched up in his easy chair and looked outside.

His wife was gone.

• • •

Meg and Mark Tanner live in the last trailer on a wide dirt road that dead-ends in a scraggly orange grove. They have been there 22 years. For much of that time, Meg labored as a school lunch lady and Mark worked on Hillsborough County's utilities. They raised their three kids inside the wood-paneled rooms.

The Tanners have seldom left home since Mark broke his back in a car accident a decade ago. He uses a walker or crutches to get around. Their 24-year-old son, who lives next door, brings them groceries.

"Meg?" Mark called last Sunday morning, scanning the trailer. "Meg?"

He shuffled into the kitchen. Her gold-rimmed glasses were on the counter, next to her wallet. Her Bible was on the table, every page underlined.

Breathing hard, Mark labored through the living room and opened the door. Her cigarettes were still on the porch railing. "Meg!" he called. "Honey, where are you?"

He called his kids, who came over to help. They fanned out through the mobile home park. "Mom, can you hear us?" Mark waited helplessly by the phone. It was so frustrating, not being able to get out and search.

After an hour, Mark called the police. At 2:30, an alert went out: Missing Person.

Soon, his home was surrounded by patrol cars, by sheriff's deputies holding dogs. Helicopters circled over the grove. Television crews climbed onto his porch, pointing cameras.

• • •

You see stories like this all too often: A grandfather wanders away from a nursing home. Someone with mental illness gets onto the wrong bus.

You know the beginnings. There are only two endings.

But can you imagine what it would be like to be in the middle?

• • •

Brown hair, green eyes, about 5-1, 125 pounds, Mark told the detectives.

"My baby was almost the same weight she was when I met her 30 years ago," he said. "My girl's no spring chicken. But she still looks good."

They had met in Italy. He was 22, a new recruit in the Army Airborne; she was 19, blond and curvaceous and wearing a cowboy hat, serving cappuccino in a cafe. She followed him to Florida, where they moved into the single-wide and started a family.

The second of their four children, Jonathan, died of SIDS when he was 6 months old.

"That was when Meg sort of started to, well . . . that's when I started noticing," Mark said.

Within a few years, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"When we lost our insurance last year, she stopped taking her meds," Mark told the detectives. "She seemed okay until a couple of months ago, when she walked off to the Circle K. But we found her right away then.

"She's never been gone this long."

• • •

A German shepherd sniffed Meg's pillow case. A detective wrote down everything Mark said.

He kept rubbing his weary eyes. His face seemed to have sunk into his thick, gray beard.

No, he hadn't noticed anything unusual about his wife lately. No, they weren't having problems with their marriage.

Deputies on ATVs bounced through the woods. Dogs pulled them down a canoe launch that dumps into the Alafia River.

"They found footprints, leading down to the river," Steven Tanner, 24, told his dad Sunday afternoon. "Then they found footprints, leading back up again."

No, Meg wouldn't think of killing herself, Mark told the detectives. She was too much of a Christian.

• • •

Dusk began to descend on the trailer park. Mark flipped on the glass light in the living room, the one Meg loved, with etched roses. He tried to picture her out there, frightened of the growing dark.

Friends and relatives pulled up outside, carrying casseroles covered with aluminum foil. They left their offerings on the stove, then grabbed flashlights and canvassed miles of farmland.

From the gloom of his mobile home, Mark watched bruised clouds swallow the half-moon. Rain began to whip at the windows. What had happened to her? Was she hurt? Was she soaked, shivering somewhere in the storm?

Clues trickled in. Someone had seen her — or someone like her — walking along the highway. Just before midnight, deputies got a report that a woman was hitchhiking along a rural road in Plant City. Nothing panned out.

More questions from the detectives. Did she have a driver's license? Passport? Credit cards? Bank accounts?

"You don't understand," Mark said. "She loves me. She'd never leave me like this."

Besides, Meg hadn't driven in years. "And my disability check doesn't come until the end of the month," Mark said.

Their bank balance? $4.

• • •

The night was too long.

Outside, 35 deputies, two dogs, a helicopter, all three kids and a dozen of their friends kept searching. Mark sat vigil by the phone.

Images kept flashing in his mind: Meg, in her cowboy hat, pouring his cappuccino; Meg sleeping in a chair beside his hospital bed.

"Every night, for nine months after my accident, she stayed with me," he told the detectives. "Every night, she slept there. So I wouldn't have to be alone."

About 5 a.m., he drifted into a fitful sleep in his chair. When he woke, he looked to his left, expecting to see Meg curled on the sofa. But it was still empty.

• • •

Monday brought more deputies, more questions, more relatives.

Just after 4 p.m., Mark's phone rang. He perked up, then sank back into himself. "Still no word," he told his brother, who had called to ask.

"Yeah, it's been about 27 hours."

An hour later, the phone rang again. By now, all three of his children, and both of his sisters, had come back to check on him.

"That was the detective," he told his family. "He wants to put up a Missing Person sign on the side of the road. And he wants to come talk to us." They all stared at him. "But it can't be bad news. If they want to put up a sign that's good news, that means they don't know."

• • •

There's not much more we can do, the detective said. They had looked everywhere they could, called every hospital, train and bus station, checked churches and homeless shelters. They had even walked the Bartow cemetery where Meg and Mark's baby son is buried.

"I keep feeling like she's still right here with me," Mark said, sniffling.

The detective promised to stay in touch. When he shut the door, it sounded like an ending.

"We've got to find her," Mark said, turning to his children. "It's going to get dark out there again soon. And she can't spend another night alone."

As hope faded, he began to blame himself. Had he done something to drive her away? Why hadn't he done more to take care of her?

By 8 p.m., he had to get out of that trailer. He couldn't stand being there, doing nothing. "If she hears my voice," he told his children, "I know she'll come home." So his kids helped him make his way out the door and into his daughter's car. It was the first time in two months that he'd left the house. The moon was just peeking above the orange grove.

"Meg!" he shouted through the window. "Meg, where are you?"

His sisters stayed by the phone. He had been gone 10 minutes when it rang.

• • •

She had made a nest in some tall weeds in the woods. A man had found her on the back of his property, her arms wrapped around her knees, terrified.

She was cut, bruised, covered with bug bites. She had been lost for 31 hours, hadn't eaten in two days. Somehow, she had wound her way through more than 5 miles of woods.

She had gone for a walk, she said, and gotten turned around in the swamp behind the trailer park. She had yelled and screamed, but no one had answered. She got so thirsty she drank from the swamp. When she couldn't walk anymore, she collapsed in the tall grass.

"She was so shaken up, and so dehydrated, they took her straight to the hospital," said Mark's sister, Carol Vieira. "They said she wouldn't have survived another night out there."

When Mark got the call on his daughter's cell phone, he wept. They drove straight to the hospital. He slept in Meg's room that night and the next, and the next, so she wouldn't be alone.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.

Where did she go? 07/19/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 4:31am]

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