LAKELAND — People who knew Sheryl Laird knew two things about her: Her 7-year-old daughter was her life. And she had a rocky relationship with her ex-husband.
Tuesday brought news that Robert Laird, 38, had driven onto the tallest span of the Sunshine Skyway the day before, leaving a body burning in a car and jumping off the bridge to his death. Police haven't officially identified the body, pending a medical examiner's confirmation, but those close to her are already grieving her death.
Her little green house in Lakeland is strung with yellow tape, and police called it the scene of a homicide.
As her loved ones processed the shock, they thought back on her accounts of domestic violence — the time he threw something at her face, the time he slashed her tires.
"He would degrade her, make her feel much less than what she really and truly was," said her friend Doug Streeter.
"She was 100 percent afraid of the man."
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Robert and Sheryl Laird divorced just days before their eighth anniversary in 2006. She got the little green house at 611 Interlachen Parkway.
The Lairds' divorce file shows that Sheryl was granted a permanent domestic violence injunction against Robert in 2005 that prevented contact with her unless it involved the couple's daughter. He was granted visitation rights every other weekend.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show that Robert Laird was arrested in Hillsborough County in April 2006 on charges of domestic violence battery and violating the domestic violence injunction.
A police report from that arrest states that when Sheryl went to pick up her daughter from Robert's Brandon home, he began cursing the mother. After she put her daughter in a car seat and walked to the driver's side door, he threw a cup of liquid in her face, she wrote in a statement.
She drove to a friend's house and called police. Deputies said the liquid smelled like vinegar and had burned her face.
Robert Laird was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail and later released.
When reached Tuesday, one of his family members declined to speak to his character.
His former landlord remembered him as a man who slept on a mattress on the floor, didn't work and spent entire nights at the casino. Nick Montgomery had rented a Brandon house to Laird's mother and stepfather about five or six years ago, but shortly after the couple moved in, the mother suffered a serious stroke and was transferred to a nursing home. Later on, the stepfather moved but asked if Laird could stay until he found a place.
Laird would help paint the house, that was the deal. He helped, but not enough. Several times, Montgomery asked him to leave. Sometimes, he acted like he left but would then re-enter through an open window.
"He just didn't have a place to go," Montgomery said. "He was a loner. He didn't really have much of a purpose. He was a sad, sad soul."
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Sheryl Laird, born Sheryl Partington, held a stable job for about two decades, as a graphic artist at the Flyer magazine, and she took design classes on her own time to broaden her skills. She was in a relationship with a man she met at work and happy enough to tell her friends she could see herself marrying him.
This is how she described her life on her Facebook profile:
I'm an artist, a mom, a girl who hasn't realized she's grown up yet. I'm very blessed with some really terrific friends and family. I even have a great cat. I'm busy. I do try to relax. I'm also working very hard on knowing that everything is going to be okay! Which it is. I just have to remember it so I can relax a little.
Her friends describe her as kind, gentle, sweet and generous. She was heavily involved in the Science of Mind Center, a Religious Science church that promotes life changes through positive thinking, compiles strengths of all belief systems and promotes "affirmative prayer."
She was brought up in that practice, said longtime church member Jackie McGordon.
Robert Laird was never involved in the church.
Sheryl Laird had been the church's treasurer since July, but a month ago, she asked McGordon to take over, so that she could deal with family issues.
A note taped to her parents' door, just blocks from her home in Lakeland, asked the media to respect their privacy.
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What would have been the couple's 11th anniversary passed Oct. 3. After several notices of delinquencies in child support payment, the divorce file was re-opened this fall. A hearing was scheduled for this Friday.
Now their daughter is staying with family members.
What happened in the home the Lairds once shared — and what triggered the events of Monday — remains a mystery.
But how it all ended was captured on cameras fixed to the Sunshine Skyway, and on the cell phones of strangers. Robert Laird drove to the highest segment of the bridge, and got out of the car. The trunk went up in flames, the body inside. Rescuers rushed to put out the fire.
And, as they did, he jumped.
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.