RUSKIN — On her way to a lonely death near Interstate 75, Enid Grace Hendricks did not escape notice. She only escaped help.
At least five people saw her, authorities say.
Mrs. Hendricks, a 75-year-old visitor from England who had shown early signs of dementia, may not have stood out for long on her two-day trek through southeast Hillsborough County. She wore a housecoat and slippers as she left her subdivision but quickly found camouflage in an eclectic landscape of trailer parks and tomato fields.
"There's a lot of people who are out there on the street," said the Rev. Tom Atchison of New Beginnings of Tampa, who feeds the homeless. "So that would not have been that uncommon to see an elderly woman in her housecoat and slippers."
Mrs. Hendricks' body was found at 9:25 a.m. Friday. A search ended, and a death investigation began. There were no signs of foul play, deputies said.
Some saw Mrs. Hendricks early in her journey as she zigzagged northeast through Ruskin. Before the midday sun beat down, they may not have suspected anything was wrong.
"That's because she was coherent enough," Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Harold Winsett said. "If you're walking down the street and see somebody you don't know … if they looked disheveled you might ask them if they need help, but if they say everything is fine, what else are you supposed to do?"
She arrived in Florida late Tuesday night with her husband, Robert. It was her first visit. Their home is in Bradford, England. They settled into her niece's place in the RiverBend subdivision, planning to spend three weeks in Florida visiting family.
Mrs. Hendricks' niece, Johannie Stanley, 44, didn't notice anything odd about her aunt that night. She drank mint tea and ate a little bit of food, but after a day of traveling, wanted to get to bed.
In the early morning hours Wednesday, Mrs. Hendricks slipped out. She walked though the sprawling Ruskin neighborhood of more than 400 houses.
As the sun rose, the slender woman would have passed tomato fields, trailer parks and a shopping plaza. She walked near Lennard High School and Hillsborough Community College's new Ruskin campus, according to the route the Sheriff's Office later reconstructed.
She traveled down dirt roads that are home to a host of characters, including a man who swore, impossibly, that he saw her four days earlier. She may have run into migrant workers who didn't speak her language.
Meanwhile, her family worried. They reported her missing at 10:30 a.m. Her face was shown on TV news reports and online.
People started calling.
At least five people told deputies they had seen Mrs. Hendricks Wednesday morning. One man talked to her and confirmed her thick Jamaican accent, housecoat and slippers. He offered her help when he saw her near a tomato field about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, but she declined, the Sheriff's Office said.
Lisa Janes, 47, a cashier at Goodwill in Sun Point Plaza, thinks she saw Mrs. Hendricks there Wednesday, though the Sheriff's Office has doubts, based on the route. Janes said she saw a woman wearing a housecoat and slippers, with a wounded foot.
"I turned back around and she was laying across the counter and she told me she didn't feel good," Janes said.
Janes offered comforting words but the stranger left. A few hours later, deputies came asking if anyone had seen a woman in a nightgown and slippers.
At least 60 people searched. Despite overnight helicopter passes with heat-seeking technology, Hendricks went undetected until Friday morning.
A helicopter crew saw her body in an overgrown field about 150 yards from I-75, a half-mile north of 19th Avenue. Mrs. Hendricks had walked more than 5 miles.
Deputies won't speculate on the cause of her death, and an autopsy hasn't been completed.
Asked about dehydration, Maj. John Marsicano said he didn't know whether she ate or drank.
In good conditions, people can live a week without water. But high temperatures, humidity and exercise can kill a person in just hours, said Randall K. Packer, a biology professor at George Washington University.
As one becomes more dehydrated, blood pressure drops, causing disorientation and dizziness, he said.
• • •
The news of the elderly woman's death saddened many, including Janes, the Goodwill clerk.
"That's right near our plaza," she said quietly. "It just breaks my heart."
People who had monitored the intense search for Mrs. Hendricks wondered how a lost woman's struggle to survive could have unraveled in full view without life-saving intervention.
Hearing the story, ethicist David DeCosse of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in Santa Clara, Calif., said it invites introspection.
"It just seems like this sometimes can happen," he said. "I think it's an occasion for all of us to just stop and think, 'What does it mean to be my mother's and brother's keeper?"
Mrs. Hendricks' family gathered at the niece's home Friday, comforting her husband. The couple, originally from Jamaica, has four children, including one in North Carolina.
Stanley said Mrs. Hendricks' relatives aren't pointing fingers.
"We can't play any blame games, we can't say anything because we don't know," she said. "We're just sad because of the circumstances."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.