BRANDON — It had been a long time since life had been so good for Michael Hurlbutt.
He had struggled with drug addiction since he was a teenager, but with the help of family, rehab and a 12-step program, his family said he had been clean for almost four years. He was a plumber by trade, a hard worker when he was healthy, and had recently landed good, steady work after a long dry spell. He and his girlfriend had discussed marriage.
Not long ago, he told his sister that for the first time in his life he could look into the mirror and say, "I love you, Michael Hurlbutt."
For some reason that his family may never understand, on March 25 someone shot Mr. Hurlbutt, ambushed him outside the home of a female friend. He died instantly, his family said. Mr. Hurlbutt was 41.
The media got some of the details of the story wrong, which exacerbated the family's anguish, Mr. Hurlbutt's sister Suzanne Walker said. A television station said that Mr. Hurlbutt and his girlfriend were moving their belongings out of a house they shared when the woman's ex-boyfriend killed him.
The woman, Siglinde Sperber, was actually a platonic friend, Walker said, a dog breeder from whom Mr. Hurlbutt had bought two Great Danes. He would often stop by and help her care for her dogs and puppies. On the day he died, he had gone along with her to take a dog to a veterinarian in Gainesville.
"He liked the dogs more than he liked her," Walker said. "He was always going over there because she didn't take care of the dogs as well as he would have."
Mr. Hurlbutt had a passion for animals, especially dogs. When his breeder's dogs had puppies, he would inundate his teenage nieces with digital photos, often with several shots of the first few minutes of each newborn puppy's life.
Sheriff's deputies have arrested Sperber's ex-boyfriend, Leonel Marquetti, in the shooting.
No one who knew Mr. Hurlbutt thought there was anything but friendship between him and Sperber. The family described Carolyn Heiser-Lopez, his girlfriend of 10 years, as "the love of his life." She had stuck with him through the worst years of his addiction, Walker said, and was enjoying his sobriety and looking to their future together.
He loved dogs so much that the family called veterinary offices and visited local dog parks to tell people of his death. Anyone in the Brandon area who really loved dogs might have known Mr. Hurlbutt. He considered his own dogs, Spartan, Rudy, Zaida and Bella, his best friends.
He also liked children. Even though he never had any children of his own, he was a devoted coach of a county-run youth football team. If he could help it, he never missed any of his nieces' sports events.
Mr. Hurlbutt's funeral was Wednesday. Friends from Narcotics Anonymous planned to come to the funeral and bring him two of the program's chips, which mark milestones of sobriety. One was a four-year chip, which he was looking forward to receiving on March 28, the anniversary of his first drug-free day. The other was an "eternity chip," which signifies that Mr. Hurlbutt will be clean and sober forever.
Besides Walker, Mr. Hurlbutt is survived by his parents, Betty White and James Hurlbutt; his stepparents, Pat Rumery and Patricia Hurlbutt; his sister Missy Morris; stepbrothers Patrick and Scot Rumery, and stepsister Tracy Pettee.
Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at email@example.com.