Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

A year later, case of missing Pinellas police cadet remains a mystery

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Lauren Rothwell walks into her dining room every day and stands before a memorial to her missing sister. She lights a candle and speaks.

"Sometimes I just say, 'Hi,' " the 29-year-old Baltimore woman says. "It's just whatever I feel like."

In that way, Monday will be no different. She'll gaze at the collage of pictures, the flowers, the assortment of memorabilia.

But it's not just any day.

A year ago Monday, her sister, police cadet Kelly Rothwell, vanished. The investigation into the case of Rothwell, 35 when she disappeared, is still open. But clues and tips have slowed to a trickle. And optimism is waning.

Says Donna Scharrett, her best friend:

"The chances of us recovering Kelly are very slim at this point."

• • •

The news of Rothwell's disappearance on March 12, 2011, unfolded before a national audience, popping up on television screens and headlines across the country.

That afternoon she told Scharrett over lunch that she was going home to break up with her longtime, live-in boyfriend, David R. Perry.

They were talking about how she would handle the conversation, Scharrett said.

"Just a regular best-girlfriend conversation," she said. "She was looking forward to ending her relationship."

That was the last time anyone saw Rothwell before she disappeared.

Rothwell missed an outing that night with fellow police cadets. The next morning, one of them called Scharrett, asking her if Rothwell was with her.

Scharrett immediately got sick.

"This is not going to end well," she told the cadet.

• • •

Pinellas County sheriff's deputies went to the couple's Indian Rocks Beach condominium.

They forced their way in and found it immaculately clean.

"Neat as a pin," said Sgt. Tom Nestor, a sheriff's spokesman.

There was no sign of Perry, 47. Investigators soon learned he returned to Elmira in his native state of New York the day Rothwell disappeared.

He repeatedly refused to speak to investigators.

Perry remained a person of interest until June.

Early that month, two Pinellas detectives went up to New York to question him. At the Elmira police station, where Perry was trying to recover an impounded vehicle, he became unnerved and tried to flee when he saw the Pinellas investigators, they said.

They also learned he was in another relationship.

They officially named him the main suspect in Rothwell's disappearance.

Despite the change, Perry, who has since married and divorced, never has been charged in the case.

• • •

This weekend Rothwell's friends will have a fundraiser in her honor.

On Monday, they'll host a candlelight vigil behind her Indian Rocks Beach condo. They'll release 52 balloons — one for each week she has been missing.

The family will remember her in a more private way.

"It's hard to go back to Florida without Kelly being there," sister Lauren Rothwell said. It's hard going to vigils.

"It's kind of like having someone's funeral over and over again," she said.

The investigation and search, while necessary, are also difficult for her — and her family.

"Everyday," Lauren Rothwell said, "there is a reminder that my sister is gone. I don't want to remember."

• • •

Since her best friend's disappearance, Scharrett has continued her own investigation.

She's combed through brush, woods and sandy beaches at low-tide.

She spends several hours a week contacting the media, trying to get the governor's attention, posting the story on various websites, pushing Rothwell's picture out there.

She remains hopeful, but realistic.

On Thursday she sat down with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and the two detectives who have spent the past year searching for Rothwell.

"It's just really the frustration," she says. "It's a year later and we aren't really one step closer to finding Kelly."

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