PLANT CITY — Gut-wrenching, sleepless nights come to mind when Mel Ardelean tries to articulate what he and his wife, Sharon, are experiencing.
"My wife is tough, but even she got to a point a couple days ago where she admitted this whole thing has her in shambles," Ardelean said.
The Plant City couple are going through one of a parent's worst fears: their child's disappearance.
In this case, the Ardeleans are seeking information about their grown daughter, Misti Whitfield, who was last seen arguing with a man at 5525 W Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa the night of May 2.
Whitfield, 35, a Tampa resident and mother of five, was between jobs as a server and arguing with a man who might have been a boyfriend when seen between 10 p.m. and midnight, Ardelean said.
The Ardeleans used Whitfield's Facebook account to contact her friends and recruit volunteers to seek information after they hadn't heard from Whitfield in mid May. Tampa police are investigating. The family also hired a private investigator.
"She usually calls every day or every other day to check on her son," said Ardelean, who, together with his wife, is raising one of her sons while Whitfield coped with drug and alcohol problems. Other family members are raising her remaining children.
Whitfield grew up in Plant City and graduated with honors from Plant City High School.
Tuesday night, hundreds of Whitfield's friends and family gathered at the historic train depot in downtown Plant City to comfort the Ardeleans and renew their support. The group lit candles and offered prayers as TV news crews hovered in the background.
"We try to stay optimistic and try to stay in contact with her friends," Jackie Pascal of Plant City said.
Since mid May, the Ardeleans have turned their home into a command post to field calls and run down tips.
"I've spent many nights driving and walking down Nebraska Avenue and Hillsborough Avenue because someone had said they'd seen her," he said.
Police have worked on the case since May 15 and are treating it as a missing-person investigation. Brad Sparkman, the Pinellas County-based private investigator hired by the family, said, however, he believes Whitfield is dead.
"I'm not at liberty to go into much detail," he said. "I'm out here on the road here today, trying to find additional information right now. All I can do is turn over my findings to the police department."
Whitfield's bicycle was left outside Nautical Marine, a boat repair business, after she argued with a man. It was returned to her apartment 10 miles away by that same man two days later, Ardelean said.
"We have no indication at this point that a crime has been committed," police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said. "We've interviewed dozens of people. We have no indication of any type of foul play."
Whitfield is 5 feet 7, 140 pounds and has red hair and hazel eyes.
"She's very outgoing and not afraid. She can be aggressive in a tough situation," said Ardelean, who owns Cuzzin's Bar in downtown Plant City. "She's scrappy."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.