When Pasco County residents Rick and Dana Lucas heard that Nancy Broadhead's 11-year-old daughter was accused of trying to burn her mom alive, their shock resonated beyond the news.
They were taken back more than a decade to a time when the couple worried daily about the little girl but felt helpless to save her.
The girl, who the St. Petersburg Times is not naming because of her age, spent much of her early childhood with the Lucas family — and for a time, was considered a part of it.
She came into Rick Lucas' life as an unwanted entity, the sort of permanent reminder of a brief relationship gone bad. He was single, for the most part, a shade older than 40, commitment-free. He spent his extra money on ski vacations and Vegas trips, not diapers and kids' clothes.
But Nancy Broadhead, he said, told him the girl was his daughter. And by then, he'd met Dana, the woman he would eventually marry.
"I didn't want the responsibility. I was living the good life," Rick Lucas said. "But (that little girl), she changed it."
At the time, in 1998, he was living in Clearwater, working in the telecommunications field. And even though he had moved on from their relationship, he still stayed close to Broadhead, if only for the baby.
Broadhead would drop off her daughter with the Lucases while she was at work. Sometimes, the Lucases say, she would leave her there for days without announcing when she would return — a claim that Broadhead denies.
For the new family, the girl's presence was a burden.
"Our life was literally turned upside down," Dana Lucas said.
Before the girl's first birthday, her paternity was sorted out. A man named William J. Forsman, now in a Georgia prison, was her father. But that didn't change anything.
"She was already in our lives, in our home, in our heart," Dana said.
The girl's visits, as many as three or four times a week, would continue for years.
The burden evolved into a blessing.
"She called me 'Daddy,' " Rick said.
To this day, he keeps pictures of the girl in his wallet.
The gruff man, who never wanted kids, was turning soft.
Rick and Dana Lucas fondly remember taking the girl to the zoo, swimming and out to dinner. They remember how she loved to catch lizards whenever they took her to Rick's father's house in Largo.
A moment indelible on Dana's mind was a time when the girl, just a toddler, waddled over to her husband as he stood on the front porch and patted him on the foot.
"Sit here," she said, "sit here."
She directed him next to her on the steps. She wanted him to blow bubbles with her.
"She opened him up. If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't have kids," said Dana Lucas, 46.
The couple now has two children of their own, ages 6 and 7. They have a photo of the girl holding their oldest daughter.
Every Christmas, Dana Lucas would pick out a Precious Moments ornament.
"Train, elephant, giraffe, lion," she recalled. "We only got to four."
Before the girl's fourth birthday, the couple's relationship with Nancy Broadhead had turned sour. A shadow that had been hanging over their time with the girl was beginning to emerge into something more tangible.
Broadhead was convicted of driving under the influence in 2002. At the time of her arrest, her daughter was in the back seat.
The Lucases said Broadhead had driven after drinking with her daughter in the car more than once. They believed she wasn't raising the girl the way a child should be raised.
They called the Department of Children and Families multiple times on Broadhead over the years for various incidents they believed were endangering the girl, Dana Lucas said, but nothing ever came of it.
"We called the 800 number. They said they would look into it. That was it," she said.
Years later, a child abuse file on Broadhead would be opened and closed, citing insufficient evidence. Clearwater police records indicate that a visit to Broadhead's house showed holes punched through walls, and marijuana in open view on a table.
"It was like the dominoes were falling and falling and falling — and now this comes out," Dana Lucas said. "That baby is in a black hole and now there's no way out."
The Lucases said while they did everything they legally could do to help the girl, they felt stonewalled by the system, and by the fact that if they pushed too hard, they were afraid Broadhead would stop letting her daughter spend time with them.
After Broadhead found out about one of the calls to Children and Families, Dana Lucas said, their fears came true.
"We'll never see her again. We knew it," she said.
Broadhead said the call was unfounded.
"He (Rick) was trying to say I wasn't getting (my daughter) medical care," Broadhead said. "That wasn't true. When she needed it, she was always at the doctor's (office)."
Despite their repeated efforts, the Lucases still bear guilt from their part-time daughter, and wish, somehow they could have done more.
"We failed her. Period. We, as people, failed her," Dana Lucas said. "As hard as we tried, we were stonewalled around every corner."
Reach Dominick Tao at email@example.com at (727) 445-4154.