TAMPA — Natalie Holley attended every day of every trial for the man who murdered her daughter.
She sat through appeals launched by Oscar Ray Bolin. The years turned into more than two decades. She wondered if her daughter, also named Natalie Holley, would ever see justice.
Bolin kept winning appeals and getting new trials.
Last month, for the fourth time, Bolin was convicted of murdering Natalie Holley's daughter and was sentenced to life in prison.
By then, Mrs. Holley was in a nursing home, too ill to attend. Friends gave her updates over the phone.
Though her daughter's death crushed Mrs. Holley, her life was defined by more than hardship. She had traveled widely, was conversant in three languages and enjoyed taking college courses into her late 70s.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Natalie Smith graduated from Birmingham-Southern College and earned a master's degree in Latin American studies from Duke University.
She worked for the U.S. State Department for about five years in Bonn, Germany, before moving to Washington, D.C. In 1959, she married lawyer Charles Holley. The family moved to St. Petersburg, then Clearwater. Charles Holley became a circuit judge, then a state representative. In 1964, he lost the governor's race to Haydon Burns.
Mrs. Holley worked in her husband's office until 1972, when the couple divorced. According to sister-in-law Betty Lou Smith, the divorce was initiated by Charles Holley and was tough on his wife.
With 12-year-old Natalie Blanche Holley and her brother, Cary, 6, to care for, Mrs. Holley scrambled for another job, Smith said. She found it in the Social Security Administration, managing to balance child care with job training in Miami.
She worked in downtown Tampa, ensuring the accuracy of payments. Former colleagues remember a woman who smiled but seldom laughed, who wore skinny heels to work and sipped iced tea.
In 1986, police informed Mrs. Holley that her daughter, known to the family as Blanche, had been found stabbed to death in an orange grove. She was 25.
Bolin would eventually be charged in Blanche's death, as well as for the 1986 murders of Teri Lynn Matthews, 26, and Stephanie Collins, 17.
Mrs. Holley returned to work but retired a few years later — just as a 20-year merry-go-round of murder trials was beginning. She bonded with Matthews' mother, Kathleen Reeves, and Collins' mother, Donna Witmer.
Together, the three women attended nearly all of Bolin's 10 trials over two decades as he won appeal after appeal.
Though Bolin is now on death row for the killings of Matthews and Collins, his lawyers continued to spring traps and won another trial for Blanche's killing. Mrs. Holley was aghast.
"She absolutely could not believe it," said Myra Gregory, a former co-worker at the Social Security office who attended the trials with her. "She would be so stressed out when that would happen."
Even so, Mrs. Holley found time to travel to Europe, China and Mexico, pore through library archives in Virginia researching her family genealogy, take literature and history courses at the University of South Florida and even learn computers well enough to teach her peers.
In 2009, she moved to assisted living in John Knox Village. A stroke a year later sent her to the home's nursing wing, where she remained.
She was determined to get to court in April, where Bolin would stand trial yet again in her daughter's murder. She said, "If I have to (get there) in my wheelchair, I will go," said Betty Lou Smith, 77. "But she was weak and thin."
Gregory phoned Mrs. Holley with daily reports from the trial. After several days, Bolin was again convicted.
"We've been down this road before, haven't we?" Mrs. Holley told the Tampa Bay Times after Bolin's conviction.
Early Wednesday, Mrs. Holley died at her retirement home. She was 86.
Her friends say they are feeling a mixture of sadness and relief. "I think she was waiting for this trial to be over," said former co-worker and friend Marge Martin. "She had to know that he was convicted again. This was the end."
Gregory, 76, recalled a familiar lament.
"She always said, 'He'll outlive me, I know he'll outlive me the way these things are going,' " she said. "And, of course, he did."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.