ZEPHYRHILLS — Odree Braxton's boyfriend waited to pick her up outside the assisted living home with their two young children, as they normally do.
Braxton, 36, has worked at Westbrooke Manor on Dairy Road in Zephyrhills for several years, making her way up from housekeeping to the nutrition department. Her children — Annabelle, 3, and Patrick, 2 — liked to say hello to the patients sitting outside while they waited for their mom with their dad, Shawn Smalley, 32.
Annabelle, a precocious blond, especially liked to try to pet a big cat named Luigi, a stray that had been living outside the Manor for years. Luigi is old and likes to snooze under the shade of bushes in the front of the building. Neighbors around Braxton and Smalley's home in Zephyrhills — a rented cottage off a dirt road with a washing machine out back and a Dora the Explorer screen in one window — said Annabelle often tried to pet the area cats.
On this evening at the nursing home, a little after 7 p.m. Tuesday, Braxton ended her shift and joined her family. Just the other day, she told her co-worker, Lisa Karppe, that she was happy — she and Shawn didn't have much, but they had their children, a roof over their heads, food to eat and enough money to pay their bills. "That's all I need in life," she told Karppe.
Whether or not Annabelle was trying to pet Luigi or another stray cat is uncertain. But a cat began running from the nursing home pavilion toward Dairy Road — a narrow, two-lane street.
And Annabelle took off after the cat — across the small parking lot, through the grass and a shallow ditch and then, the road.
Braxton chased her daughter — grabbing her as a car hit them both, dragging and then pinning them under the car's frame. Both Braxton and Annabelle were flown from the scene to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. The last report released to the Zephyrhills Police Department listed both in critical condition.
The car was driven by Ted Johnson, a corporal with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. He has been a deputy since 1984 and was off duty and in his own car.
A Zephyrhills police report said Johnson tried to swerve to miss them, but it was too late. Kevin Doll, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said Johnson is, of course, upset — it's everyone's worst nightmare. He hasn't yet come back to work.
Karppe said Braxton is "the greatest person."
"Everybody loves Odree," said another co-worker, Lacey Jenkins. Both women stopped by the Manor on Thursday to pick up their paychecks and to get updates on Braxton and Annabelle.
The residents have been upset and asking for Braxton. There are still stains on the road from the accident, circled by bright orange spray paint.
That afternoon, Luigi — charcoal and black with splotches of white — slept in the shade near the front door, seemingly oblivious to the world. But then a boy, 4 years old and blond, ran up to him — "Hey, kitty, kitty!" — and Luigi opened his yellow eyes and bolted for open space.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.