TAMPA — In death, Randy Bell is his daughter's guardian angel.
"Dad, talk to the man upstairs," she sometimes prays. "Tell him this is what I need."
Demetra Bell Jones, 38, needs a liver transplant. Hers is failing. A new one will cost $314,000.
She wishes her father were alive. He would know what to do.
In 1998, having lived long enough to see the eldest of his daughters get married and give birth, the Tampa police detective died at the hands of a killer with a handcuff key, as did two other law enforcement officers. It all began with the death of a 4-year-old boy. The killer was Hank Earl Carr.
Nearly 16 years later, another life is in peril.
This time, the killer is Jones' own immune system. This time, there is hope. And maybe this time, good people hold a key.
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She was diagnosed five years ago with autoimmune hepatitis.
It was the latest in a series of immune system disorders that began at age 9, when her thyroid gland failed. In high school, her antibodies wrongly targeted blood platelets, forcing removal of her spleen at age 20 while she was 5 1/2 months pregnant.
"She has been sick pretty much her whole life," said Jennifer Neal of Tampa, who is the deceased detective's sister.
Demetra met her husband, Ron Jones, in 1993 while working at Busch Gardens.
They married three years before the police shootings. Randy Bell got to hold his grandson, R.J., now 18. The Joneses live in Fort Myers, where the husband is an engineer and Demetra has worked as a school secretary.
One day five years ago, R.J. pointed out a new yellowish tinge to his mother's eyes and skin. In the medical tests that followed, she learned her liver was failing and that it would eventually need to be replaced.
She takes 30 pills a day. For years, the medicines to suppress her immune system helped, but they are not enough anymore.
"The doctor came in on New Year's Eve day and said the medicines are no longer working for her," Neal said.
This month, Jones is undergoing tests at the private, nonprofit Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to qualify for a liver transplant.
"The 20th is my last day of testing here," she said Sunday. "They bring it in front of the committee on Wednesday (Jan. 22). On Thursday, I'm told if I'm listed. If I'm listed, they need the money. They can't put me on a transplant list until I have the money."
Mayo Clinic spokesman Paul Scotti said it's common for the hospital to encourage fundraising efforts at this stage to minimize stress and uncertainty later. Payment doesn't have to be made prior to surgery, he said, but patients are sometimes asked to show proof of raised funds before getting on the transplant list.
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The appeal went up New Year's Eve on the website, GoFundMe.com, where people with financial needs turn to the public for help.
It was posted by Neal.
Contributions of all amounts are accepted. In six days, the first 170 people donated about $13,000. Some gave $5, $10, $20. Some gave $500 or even $1,000.
Health insurance will cover $134,400 of the estimated $314,000 bill, leaving a balance of $179,600, the family says. There will be other expenses, including future drug co-pays and months of pre- and post-transplant lodging in the Jacksonville area, so Neal hopes to collect more.
The detective's former colleagues are among those raising money and encouraging others to do the same.
In an interview Monday, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor spoke about the fundamental unfairness of children losing a parent in the line of duty.
"If Randy were here today he would be doing everything he could to save his daughter's life," she said. "Since he can't be here, it's incumbent on us to do all we can to see that she survives."
A police officer's surviving spouse and dependents often qualify for special benefits.
But Jones was an adult when her father was shot along with fellow Detective Rick Childers on May 19, 1998.
That day, Carr, suspected of killing his girlfriend's son, unlocked his own handcuffs in the back of a police vehicle and seized Childers' gun. Carr went on to kill state Trooper James "Brad" Crooks and himself.
"She didn't qualify for any of those benefits, college or anything," her aunt said. "The younger girls got benefits. She was over the age."
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As the eldest, though, she got something money can't buy: more memories of her father.
She knows perfectly well what he would tell her.
"Just to keep fighting, like I am," she said. "To never give up.
"That life is worth living."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.