ST. PETERSBURG — Jimmy Nunley grew up in rural Tennessee without much of a family.
He never met his father. A younger sister died of sudden infant death syndrome. His mother, 28-year-old Celestine Nunley, hanged herself in a jail cell in 1995 after she was booked for a domestic disturbance.
Jimmy was 11. He spent the rest of his childhood in foster homes.
At 18, he joined the Army. For the first time in years, he had a sense of direction.
He was trained in air defense and protected Bradley tanks. He served in the Delta Battery, 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery, and 1st Cavalry Division. He served in Kuwait from 2001 to 2003, mostly before the start of the Iraq war, poised for a combat he never saw.
"Ever seen (the movie) Jarhead? It's an antsy feeling. Hurry up and wait," said Darwin Culbertson, a friend of Mr. Nunley's since they met in Fort Hood, Texas.
"You just sit there. Is it gonna be today? Is it gonna be tomorrow? Or is it gonna be never?"
Mr. Nunley was discharged in 2003 and returned to Tennessee. He married and fathered two children and worked as a welder.
He moved to St. Petersburg in 2008, just before his divorce was complete. That same year, Amanda Slone and a girlfriend were at the Sports Bar & Grill, trying to fend off a stranger's unwanted advances.
"He said, 'When are you going to drop this chicken dinner and go with a winner?' " said Slone, 25.
She liked his thick Tennessee accent.
A few weeks later, she watched as Mr. Nunley absently dropped a white pill into his mouth.
"I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'My back hurts. It's just a Vicodin, I got it from a friend.' "
The couple rented a home. Mr. Nunley worked at a construction company as a concrete pump mechanic.
They played dominos or spades at night or went to the bar to shoot pool.
"He treated me real well," Slone said. "No one had ever made me feel so appreciated."
One night they made a list of all the things they liked and disliked about each other. Mr. Nunley got the idea from Why Did I Get Married?, one of his favorite movies.
On her short list of dislikes, Slone made sure to mention her boyfriend's messy eating habits and that he picked his toenails.
But there was no question what would go at the top of the list: the pills.
He was taking more of them, Slone said. Mostly oxycodone he got from friends.
"I remember telling him, 'You're not allowed to take those anymore. I don't like the way you act,' " Slone said.
Suddenly, there wasn't enough money to pay bills.
"It wasn't in large amounts that could be accounted for all the time," said Slone, who kept track of the finances. "It would just be like, 'I think we are $20 short of where we should be.' "
Mr. Nunley was delighted when she told him she was pregnant. They dreamed of a private wedding ceremony on Egmont Key.
But in February 2009, police charged Mr. Nunley with possession of cocaine. He was given 18 months probation.
Despite the drug problems, photos show a beaming Mr. Nunley holding his infant daughter, Abigail.
Then Teresa Pringle, Slone's mother, came home from a trip to find jewelry missing — some bracelets, a locket, earrings.
"I felt very betrayed," said Pringle, 51, who described her prospective son-in-law as "a good kid with issues." Mr. Nunley admitted stealing the jewelry, she said, and apologized repeatedly through text messages.
"That was when things started to turn," Slone said.
Troubles mounted. The couple's landlord sued for overdue rent. He was behind on his $330 monthly child support payments.
In August, Slone moved Abigail and herself into Pringle's house. Mr. Nunley stayed behind at the house they had shared, bicycling to his job at a McDonald's restaurant on Fourth Street N.
Without electricity, Mr. Nunley depended on sympathetic neighbors who let him run an extension cord.
After another arrest in early November, he stopped taking pills and went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Slone said.
He stayed clean for 16 days.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he worked from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. at McDonald's. He spent the next day celebrating with friends. He later wound up at the home of his old Army buddy, Darwin Culbertson.
Late Thanksgiving evening, Slone visited Mr. Nunley there. Before she went home, Mr. Nunley made Slone promise to call to let him know she had arrived safely.
She complied, but got no answer.
She called again the next morning. Again, no answer.
At about 10 a.m. Friday, Culbertson found Mr. Nunley still on the couch and unresponsive. He tried to awaken him but could not. A 911 operator walked him through CPR.
Mr. Nunley died Sunday at Northside Hospital. He was 27.
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's office is conducting an autopsy. Slone believes he overdosed on pills.
"The hardest part is that I lost him, that his daughter will not know him," Slone said. "But the biggest, hardest part is that he was doing so well."
Mr. Nunley's family has taken his body back to Tennessee. He will be buried next to his mother.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected]