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Sunshine Skyway tragedy reveals two lives taking very different paths

LAKELAND

This past Monday, Robert Laird shot his former wife, Sheryl, dead in her home, put her in the trunk of her car and drove some 60 miles to the tallest part of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. He stopped in the breakdown lane on the southbound span. He got out of the car, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

He stood on the side of the road. Flames blocked the lanes and cars stopped. He put a coffee mug down, climbed to the top of the short concrete wall, stretched out his arms, and finally left her alone.

Inside the burning trunk was the mother of his 7-year-old daughter.

A woman who was consistently thoughtful and willfully optimistic in spite of years of domestic torment. She was losing weight and moving on, and had found a new love.

A woman who was murdered by her former husband, her friends believe, because she was happy and he was not.

• • •

Her parents called her a miracle.

George and Natalie Partington met at a fraternity party at New York University. Love at first sight. They married in 1958. Two years later, they had a son, Douglas. Doctors told Natalie she probably wouldn't be able to have any more children.

Sheryl was born in 1970. Liz was born in 1972.

They moved from New York to Florida and raised their three kids in a wood-paneled home. George was a middle school English teacher for 30 years. Natalie was a nurse. All three of their kids went to the same public schools. All three at one point lived back at home as adults. All three eventually bought houses nearby.

They attend Sunday services at the one-story, concrete block Church of Religious Science in rural Auburndale, where members believe in the power of affirmative prayer. Good things come to those who think good thoughts.

"You're not just some weak thing to be thrown about," George Partington said the other day in his home. "By using your positive thinking, you can bring about positive things in your experience."

"Mom and dad," said Liz Partington, Sheryl's sister, "raised us to see the good in people and to help people step up."

Sheryl Partington met Robert Laird through a friend who had a band. Robert was a roadie.

They both lived in Brandon. He had a GED. He was a well-read history buff. He worked odd jobs — construction, delivery, cleaning houses after people moved out — but he worked. And he was close to his mother. Sheryl liked that.

He wouldn't open up to her, though, or most anybody else, her family would later say, and he was moody. Later they would wonder if he was mentally ill.

Sheryl waited seven years for him to propose. She made her own wedding invitations and chose the music. They married on Oct. 3, 1998, in a church ceremony at sunset in a small chapel with stained glass windows. Her dad officiated.

"She saw something in him," said Lisa Pompeo, a longtime friend.

"He was a soul," said another friend, Jeremy Porter, "that she was trying to help."

• • •

Sheryl worked for almost 18 years as a graphic artist at a local penny saver magazine called the Flyer. She was a big talker with a trademark giggle, according to co-workers, and she brought in Valentine's Day cards and Christmas cards every year. One time she brought everybody Happy Bunny stickers from the Dollar Store.

She struggled with her weight for most of her life, her family said, and she was self-conscious about it. But she wore dresses and skirts with heels and hose, even in the summer, and she always styled her baby-fine hair.

She and her friends often had what they called "lunch therapy" at Red Lobster or Olive Garden or Sonny's barbecue for the $5.99 special.

Sometimes, though, she ate alone in a conference room while reading romance novels.

"She loved that stuff," Pompeo said. "She was a romance kind of girl. There's a woman, there's a man, they're in love … "

Sheryl and Robert at first lived in an apartment by the interstate. It was all they could afford.

She paid the bills. He called her fat.

In 2000, around Christmas, they saw a little green house blocks away from their parents' place. Robert and Sheryl bought it for $48,500 in March. She became pregnant that month.

Her sister, not Robert, was Sheryl's Lamaze coach. Her sister's husband, not Robert, built her baby's crib.

Robert was checking out, Sheryl's sister said, maybe in "shock" or "denial" with a baby on the way.

The girl was born in December. In Sheryl's early years as a mother, she could budget to get groceries for $25 a week, while Robert hid booze. Sheryl saved $5 bills to buy her daughter Happy Meals when she got a little older. Robert's mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and had to go to a nursing home, and that made him even worse.

Sheryl suggested marriage counseling. He refused. She told him it might be their last chance. He refused.

She asked for a divorce. He moved out.

He started sitting in a car and watching her house while she was inside. She would ask him to leave. He wouldn't go. She got a permanent domestic violence injunction in 2005.

The next year, he was living in Brandon, and he came to Sheryl's house to pick up their daughter for a visit, and he splattered a foul, sour liquid from a cup onto her face. She later told friends it was urine. That was in April.

The divorce was done in September 2006.

Robert was not.

• • •

December 2006: disturbance.

January 2007: criminal mischief.

February 2007: disturbance.

April 2007: suspicious incident.

Sheryl told friends he slashed her tires at least twice, broke her air conditioning and turned off her electricity. He left notes on the windshield of her car so she would find them in the morning.

Her sister's husband started driving by on his way to work to check on her.

At the Flyer, by the front desk, there was a picture of Robert with his name and a message: Don't let this man in.

They still shared custody of their daughter. She called her "Munchkin" and "Monkey Pants." Sometimes the girl told Sheryl the bad things her father was saying about her.

Friends sometimes overheard Sheryl talking to her daughter on the phone at work. "One day you're going to understand," they remember Sheryl saying, "but right now I can't explain it to you."

She wanted to protect her daughter from the domestic strife, and at some point she stopped sharing as much with her friends, too. Maybe, they thought, she didn't want to bother them with it. Or maybe she was a little embarrassed. Or maybe she just wanted it to be over.

Friends wondered last week how it could have been different if she had said more.

"I fear she did not report half the stuff he did because of her nature," Terry Tidwell said.

• • •

In 2008, the second full year after the divorce, Robert lived for a while in Brandon with his stepdad. And then he was alone, because his stepdad moved out after he lost his construction job, and Robert was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and had no job. The landlord kicked him out.

George and Natalie Partington found him sleeping on their deck one day in August.

He said he was homeless and that he had come to say goodbye to them and his daughter. They thought maybe if he had an address he could get a job.

"I wouldn't let my granddaughter have her daddy that way," Natalie Partington said. "I just couldn't."

"It's our belief system," George Partington said.

Good things come to those who think good thoughts.

They let him in.

• • •

"Well," Sheryl wrote in April in an e-mail to a friend, "I'm not going to lie, I was let go from my job of almost 18 years last week. I'm really trying to wrap myself around the whole Ferris Bueller way of thinking that life's too short, enjoy it while you can. …"

When the Flyer let her go, she used some of her severance to buy a new computer so she could do freelance design, and she took classes at the New Horizons computer school in Tampa so she could do it better.

She re-painted the walls inside her little house. No more brown. No more pale blue. Now: pink, yellow, orange.

She joined Weight Watchers and lost 70 pounds.

She was re-hired at the Flyer in the summer.

She had a new love, too, a man she met at work, also an artist. They had picnics with her daughter, played tennis together and went to Universal Studios for her birthday.

Earlier this month, said Tidwell, a mutual friend, he mentioned marriage for the first time.

"I think she had found a man who treated her like she deserved and loved her no matter what size, and was kind," said Liz, her sister. "She knew love, good love, that she deserved."

The relationship, Sheryl said in an e-mail to a friend, was "like having an emotional life preserver."

"He helps keep me in good spirits through all the hoo-hah in this world," she wrote.

Friends called it a new beginning. They felt like they were watching a transformation.

Meanwhile, Robert still was living out of two suitcases in a back room of her parents' house. Sometimes he helped with dishes. Sometimes in the morning he walked to the local day labor place.

He was supposed to be paying nearly $800 a month in child support. He paid nothing last fall, then $495.48 in December, then $598.96 in January, then $484.98 in February. Then nothing in March, then $45.09 in April, then nothing in May.

"She was moving forward," said Sheryl's friend Jeremy Porter. "He wasn't moving forward, he was moving backward, and trying to drag her with him every step of the way."

He paid $73.25 in June.

He paid nothing in July.

"She would say, 'I deserve this, darn it all to heck, I'm going to be happy, no matter what crap he throws in my way,' " friend Lisa Pompeo said. "Here he was, poking her, poking her, throwing up this obstacle, throwing up that obstacle.

"He tormented her," she said. "He was not happy that she was happy."

In August, Sheryl filed papers demanding the almost $18,000 in child support he owed. He could've been thrown in jail. A hearing was coming up.

"She was hoping going to court was going to help her help him see, 'Maybe you should go do something with your life,' " Porter said. "She was hoping it would help both of them."

In September, she stepped down from her position as treasurer at church, citing family issues.

She wasn't sleeping well, she said on her Facebook page in October. She was "restless" and "uncomfortable."

"I'm going to blame the ex," she wrote. "It's his fault."

A week ago, she went to her parents' house after work to pick up her daughter. "I'm so, so tired," she told her mother. Then she took her daughter and some of her friends out for ice cream and to feed the ducks at the lake by their house.

On Monday morning she made it to a parent-teacher conference at her daughter's school at 8. She didn't make it to an appointment with her chiropractor later that morning.

Robert returned to her parents' house around noon. Natalie Partington saw him come in. He often was in and out and usually was polite, frequently saying the same thing: "I don't want to bother you folks any more than necessary."

Later that day they would find out what he had done. Now they say they forgive him.

On Monday around noon, though, Robert told Natalie Partington before leaving again that he was going to go out and mow some lawns.

He asked if he could borrow their gas can.

News researcher John Martin and staff writer Andy Boyle contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The daughter of Robert and Sheryl Laird, who died last week in a murder-suicide, was born in 2001. An article Sunday gave an incorrect date.

Trust fund for girl

Relatives have set up a fund for the 7-year-old daughter of Sheryl Laird. To contribute, contact the MidFlorida Federal Credit Union toll-free at 1-866-913-3733.

Sunshine Skyway tragedy reveals two lives taking very different paths 10/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2009 5:30pm]
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