An urn found at the side of the road unravels a mystery

The trackhoe's jaws lifted snarls of brushwood from the shoulder of I-75 in north Hillsborough County on Saturday, delivering them to the toothy, steel conveyer belt of a shredding machine. Eddie Frazier sat in the air conditioning of the trackhoe's cabin. He had lifted the next load in the air when something on the ground caught his eye.

Among dirt, branches and the occasional Busch Light can strewn on the shoulder, he doesn't know how he saw it. It looked like a bowl, he said. The color of pine­straw. He climbed down from the cabin for a closer look. There, lodged in the dirt on the side of the interstate, was an urn.

Frazier, 53, who works for Clear Con, a Raleigh, N.C.-based clearing and grading company, pulled the urn from the earth.

"I needed to make sure there wasn't somebody in there," he said.

Frazier unscrewed three screws and pulled off the lid to reveal a bag of ashes. Scrawled in black ink on its side, a name: Janice Lee Scharff.

Who was she? Maybe someone's mother, or a daughter. Maybe a wayfaring truck driver who had chosen the road as her final resting place, he imagined.

He closed the urn and put it in the front seat of his truck for safekeeping. He drove her around in his truck all day.

Frazier eventually took the urn to the Best Western in Wesley Chapel, where his crew on the road widening project is staying. He asked a hotel employee to call the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Deputy Stephen Bunner came out to the hotel. He put the name into a database. Ronald Alfred Scharff, a 70-year-old man from Bradenton, came up on the screen. Bunner called him.

She was his wife, Scharff told the deputy. Records showed the woman died in 2007. Her cause of death remains unclear.

Scharff had been riding with the urn in his truck on June 29, 2008. According to Florida Highway Patrol reports, he was driving his 1999 GMC pickup in the middle, southbound lane of the interstate when a car in the left lane swerved into Scharff's lane, he told troopers. He swerved to miss the car and then overcorrected. The truck flipped and rolled across two lanes onto the right shoulder. The urn was ejected out the window. The other car kept going.

Scharff survived the crash. The urn couldn't be found.

For three years, it sat in the brush, just on the other side of a fence parallel to the road. Time and traffic streamed by.

The 2008 report says the crash happened 2 miles north of the Bruce B. Downs Boulevard exit. Frazier said he found it just 100 yards north of the boulevard's overpass. It was unclear how the urn had made its way that far.

The deputy put the urn in the property and evidence section at the Pasco County Jail for safekeeping. Scharff made arrangements to pick up the urn at 2:30 p.m. Monday.

Word had spread. Reporters and TV news trucks crowded at the jail's entrance.

The scheduled time came and went. The jail office closed at 5:30 p.m. Scharff never came.

For now, no other information is available. The man married to the woman in the urn didn't answer his phone Monday evening.

Still, Frazier said, he thinks it's more than coincidence that he found the urn.

"It needed to go back," he said. "God makes miracles."

Alex Orlando can be reached at aorlando@tampabay.com or at (727) 869-6247.

An urn found at the side of the road unravels a mystery 04/30/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 30, 2012 11:23pm]

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