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As killer from Pinellas awaits execution, victim's daughter grapples with memories

ST. PETERSBURG — Wendy Mistry knew when she was a kid that her mother had died, but for years she never knew details.

Then, in high school, a classmate showed her a true crime magazine.

On those pages was the grisly story of how Mistry's mother, Deborah Kammerer, was raped and murdered on Jan. 2, 1980, in St. Petersburg. A man named Robert Waterhouse was convicted of the crime and condemned to Florida's death row.

After decades of appeals, Gov. Rick Scott signed Waterhouse's death warrant on Jan. 4 and scheduled his execution for Feb. 15.

The murder, Mistry thinks, helped set the course for her troubled family life. Silences marked her relationships with other family members, including her younger sister and brother, Tina and Craig. For years, they each lived in their own private hell.

"It's just long overdue," Mistry, 43, said of the pending execution. "We didn't forget about it, but we put it in the back of our minds. You don't really ever forget."

In time, she and her family did their best to move on, she said. But now, more than 30 years later, the memories are returning.

• • •

The short woman with the tiny waist and curly red hair comes into focus in Mistry's mind with a background of sunshine, palm trees and sandy beaches in moments long passed.

Deborah Kammerer, 29 when she died, was divorced. Mistry and her siblings lived with their father in Indiana, but they visited their mother at least once in her newfound home in St. Petersburg.

Mistry recalls visions of her brother climbing a banyan tree and throwing rocks at an alligator near a lake that wasn't far from her mother's home at 830 Grove St. N. She remembers sleeping on her mother's screened-in porch after getting sunburned. She remembers her mother was dating someone, but she can recall nothing about the man.

Then there are memories of the whole family together — once her dad caught a fish in a lake and teased her mother, chasing her through their grandmother's house with it as the family laughed. And there was Christmas 1979 in Indiana — Deborah Kammerer's last Christmas.

• • •

Mistry was horrified when she read about the murder. She couldn't talk to family, so she spoke to counselors at school. In time, she obtained copies of police reports and court transcripts and read each word.

She read about how witnesses spotted her mother the night before the murder at the ABC Lounge at 4545 Fourth St. N. Kammerer left in the company of Waterhouse, a bartender later told authorities.

She read about how her mother's body was found nude the next morning in Lassing Park, on the shore of Tampa Bay — how she was raped and violated with a beer bottle, a used tampon shoved down her throat, and how she was struck on the head more than 22 times before being left to drown in the surf.

She read about how police linked Waterhouse to the crime with forensic evidence — including hairs that matched Kammerer's and blood spatter that was found inside his car — and how he had served time in prison in New York for a similar homicide.

"He didn't just destroy one life," Mistry said. "He destroyed many."

Mistry never attended any of Waterhouse's numerous court hearings. She has never seen the man who killed her mother. She has never spoken to him.

But she would like to.

"What did she do to him for him to do such a heinous thing?" she wonders. "What possibly could have been so bad that he had to do this?"

She doesn't talk about everything. Even before the murder, the family was troubled. And the crime only amplified later misfortunes.

In 1997, Kammerer's other daughter, Tina Hacker, died in a car crash.

It hurts, but Mistry can't help but wonder: What if their mother had lived?

"I think I wouldn't have fear of people like I did," Mistry said. "I would have trusted people more."

In time, the wounds healed, but scars remained. For Mistry, more than 30 years of grief coalesced into a kind of peace, she said. She talks to her pastor. She prays.

• • •

Barring a successful appeal or a stay of execution, the man who killed Deborah Kammerer will be injected with a cocktail of chemicals and die Feb. 15 at Florida State Prison in Starke.

When news of the death warrant came earlier this month, Kammerer's family was bombarded with requests for comments and interviews. They said little at first.

Earlier this month, when a witness came forward claiming he saw Waterhouse leave the ABC Lounge with two men — not Kammerer — the night of the murder, Mistry wondered what took him so long. She doubts his story. A judge later declined an appeal that was based on the man's testimony.

"I've read everything," Mistry said. "I'm not sure what else they need to prove that he (Waterhouse) did it."

Mistry, who is married now and lives near Dallas, first heard the news of the execution from her brother's family in Indiana, she said. A victim's advocate sent the family members a DVD with information about what to expect if they choose to witness the execution.

Though Mistry says her brother wants to be a witness, she doesn't know if she can.

"It's not something we're taking lightly," she said.

She doesn't know what to make of all the bad memories the execution has brought back to the surface. She prefers to hold onto the good ones. She wants to visit Florida. Not to see Waterhouse. But to see again the place her mother called home.

"I want to revisit that place she lived to have happy memories," she said. "It's going to be hard."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

As killer from Pinellas awaits execution, victim's daughter grapples with memories 01/29/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 30, 2012 8:37am]
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