TAMPA — A 32-year-old investigator, a rising star in the federal public defender's office, was accidentally shot and killed Saturday by her father while they were cleaning guns together.
Melissa Kupferberg spent the morning shooting pistols at a local range with her father, who was visiting from Maryland. They returned to her Seminole Heights home and began to clean the weapons.
But Kupferberg was having difficulty disassembling one of the pistols, Tampa police said. So she handed off a Glock Model 34 to her father, Stephen P. Kupferberg, 65.
Glock pistols require the trigger to be depressed to be cleaned. And as Stephen Kupferberg tried to tear down the pistol in his daughter's home around noon on Saturday, something went wrong.
A single shot was fired, striking Melissa in the upper body.
She initially remained conscious and breathing, police say, but died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Her father, who had planned to fly back to Maryland that afternoon, cooperated fully with the police investigation that found "no sign this was anything but a tragic accident."
The Kupferberg family could not be reached Sunday, when stunned co-workers gathered in her office to mourn the loss of a devoted young investigator whose career was already gaining national prominence.
Melissa Kupferberg was writing a book about approaches to investigations that drew on her background in mental health, said Donna Elm, the federal defender for the middle district of Florida in the Tampa office.
She excelled at her job, a coveted position in the federal public defender's office, and was being invited to speak at national conferences. She was involved with the National Defender Investigator Association.
"At 32, this is all very remarkable," Elm said, adding that she was also beloved by her co-workers.
"She's one of those really optimistic, positive souls who always smiles and loves a joke and is very cheery."
And in the world of public defense, that's not easy.
"This is a very hard field to practice. We don't win most; we're not supposed to. Our clients often don't appreciate us much," Elm said. "We've had clients who have been very abusive and difficult, especially if they're mentally ill, and she has just been very understanding, very kind and very effective at working with them."
Kupferberg worked long hours, but was close to family and a small group of intimate friends, said Elm, who previously worked with her in Arizona. She had been working in the Tampa office for several years.
Kupferberg enjoyed biking and range shooting, her boss said. She also had been working out and losing weight and was talking about running a 5K race, said a neighbor, Carla Gormon, 37, who cared for Kupferberg's dog when she was traveling for work.
"She was a hardworking person," Gormon said. "And she was just a good person."
Times staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322.