TAMPA — Vicki Walker has lived in the Dockside condominium on the Hillsborough River for more than three years. On Thursday, for the first time, she noticed someone in the water.
She had just heated up a snack and sat on her third-floor porch.
"There was nobody around but a woman in the water," Walker said.
She took a photo. Only later would she learn the woman was Shakayla Denson, 26, now accused of leaving her 4-year-old daughter to drown in that water minutes earlier.
"My brain knows I couldn’t have done anything," Walker said Friday, sitting in the same chair, "but my heart aches knowing a child died right there and I watched her mother walk away from it."
Had she known about the child, she would have called the police, said Walker, who is a minister at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa.
"I didn’t know what I was looking at," she said.
Denson was not flailing. Nor did she appear dressed for a swim. She wore regular clothes. Walker saw her walking the water toward the west bank. As Denson neared the land, Walker snapped the photo from her porch on the east bank. The time stamp is 3:35 p.m., Walker said.
A misty rain started, and Denson sat in the grass. Walker could hear anguished cries from Denson as boats came through the area.
She saw Denson take her shirt off and walk across Rome avenue, stopping to open a house’s recycling bin. Walker lost sight after Denson rounded a curve in the road.
The minister left her balcony to meet friends for an early dinner. One friend mentioned seeing a large number of emergency vehicles heading toward the area.
When Walker got home, she rode across the bridge to see if anyone needed help. That’s when she learned the story behind the woman in the river.
She said she hopes people will not rush to judgment and will show compassion for everyone involved.
"Just like we can’t see what is happening under the murky dark waters of the Hillsborough River," she said, "no one can see what is happening inside the soul of another human being."
Back home on her balcony, she called a friend and cried.
For her, the river has always teemed with life. She enjoys watching the manatees that come up from the bay. But, now, there would also be a reminder of death.
"There are no words," she said.