ST. PETERSBURG — Jenna Lombardi searched her mind for memories, scoured public records, pleaded on the Internet.
Where was her dad?
She was 3 when Carl Schmidlin left. She didn't know he even existed until she was 12, didn't start looking for him until she was 18. She would spend more than a decade searching, wondering what had become of him, whether he ever thought of her.
Was he a doctor living down the street from her comfortable Fort Lauderdale home? A scholar living halfway around the world?
Was he looking for her, too?
Her search would end on a warm September morning at a park in downtown St. Petersburg.
She would get the answers she sought — and a new search would begin.
• • •
Lombardi, 33, was adopted by her stepfather. She says her mom wouldn't tell her anything about her biological dad, destroyed most of the pictures of him and concealed his last name.
She knew his first name — Carl — and remembered a name on a beaded baby bracelet she'd seen years earlier — Schmidlin.
Lombardi, who owns a yacht management company in Fort Lauderdale, started searching property records and found nothing.
Then she remembered a comment her grandmother made about her dad years back. Something like, "Check the jails."
So she did.
Two years ago she sat down in her home office and logged onto her computer. She searched the Web site of the Florida Department of Corrections. And there she found a mug shot of a frowning Carl Schmidlin from his myriad stints in prison for drugs and theft. It was the first recent photo she had seen of him. He was about the right age, and she could see a resemblance, but Lombardi wasn't sure he was the right guy.
She started piecing together Schmidlin's whereabouts based on his prison release dates and addresses. She searched his last name in Pinellas County public records and found the divorce file for Schmidlin and her mom.
That confirmed it.
Lombardi got nowhere with Schmidlin's listed phone numbers and addresses, so she posted a plea on Craigslist asking anyone who knew Carl Schmidlin to contact her.
A stranger pointed her to a genealogy Web site that listed part of the Schmidlin family tree.
There, Lombardi found a half sister, Meghan Mazzola. She found Mazzola's MySpace page and e-mailed her.
"I wrote, 'Listen, you don't know me. This might sound crazy, but I think you might be my sister,' " Lombardi remembers. "She said, 'Yes, I am. I've known about you for years.' "
That's how she learned what had become of her father.
• • •
Mazzola's mother, Tammy Martin, had kept loosely in touch with Schmidlin over the years.
Last she knew, he was living on the streets of St. Petersburg. Williams Park, a magnet for the homeless, seemed like a good place to look.
On Sept. 6, Lombardi went to the park with Mazzola and Martin. They handed out cigarettes and hamburgers to homeless people on park benches, hoping someone could lead them in the right direction.
Suddenly, Martin pointed to a lumbering man with shaggy, graying hair. "There he is," she said.
Lombardi looked up and saw her father. They looked alike. Schmidlin's knees buckled. They both started crying.
His backpack held everything he owned. He has been homeless for years.
They all spent Labor Day weekend sharing meals and catching up. Lombardi got Schmidlin a hotel room for the weekend and bought him new socks and a cell phone.
Now they talk just about every day.
Schmidlin, 57, says after he and Lombardi's mom divorced, he bounced from job to job — a wastewater treatment plant, machinery factories, telemarketing companies.
Drinking got in the way. He spent more than four years in prison for selling cocaine. He also fathered 10 kids.
The whole time, he wondered about the little girl he barely knew.
He never looked for her, thinking she was better off without him, he says. His only real link was a Polaroid photograph, taken on her sixth birthday at a backyard patio table and mailed to him by Lombardi's grandparents.
"That's all I had," Schmidlin said.
When it rained, Schmidlin tucked the photo between clothes in his duffel bag. When he was behind bars, he stored it at a friend's house in a box.
Even Martin remembers him having it.
A couple of weeks ago, he stashed it in a black backpack beside a women's health clinic. When he returned from a prayer vigil, the bag was gone, and so was everything in it — his seizure medication, his ID cards, the photo of his daughter.
"I think he's more upset about losing that than anything else," Lombardi said.
Lombardi now had a new search on her hands. She posted an ad on the lost and found page of Craigslist.
"He didn't have much before, but now he has even less," Lombardi wrote in the listing. No one has responded, but Lombardi's post is still out there, promising a reward.
• • •
Schmidlin says he has little hope about finding his backpack.
But maybe hopes don't matter, he said. "You hope to catch the bus, you hope it doesn't rain. You get a good day here and there, and that's all you can really hope for."
With Lombardi, Mazzola and Martin back in his life, Schmidlin says he feels like a void has been filled. "It's comforting to the soul," he said.
He thinks about going into rehab when he gets a new ID card, but for now he sometimes has a couple of beers in the morning "just so I'm not vibrating."
He's looking forward to Thanksgiving at Lombardi's house. He'll finally meet her husband, Chris, and Lombardi's 12-year-old daughter, Sabrina. Martin and Mazzola are going, too.
Lombardi is estranged from her mom, and this will be the first time in a long time she has celebrated the holiday with extended family.
They plan to take lots of pictures.