TAMPA — Sara Savage called Gwendolyn Belcher's cell phone Sunday as frantic family members asked if she had seen her next-door neighbor. The call went straight to voice mail.
"I knew something was wrong," said Savage, 67, of Seffner. "She always answers or it at least rings a while before the machine picks up."
That night, deputies found Belcher's car and a burned body at Taylor and Pruett roads. On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's office confirmed the skeletal remains belonged to Gwendolyn Belcher.
"I lost a dear friend," Savage sobbed Thursday. "She was as good to me as a good daughter would have been to her own mother. She took care of me. And I lost my best friend."
A family member reported Belcher, 43, missing Sunday. Detectives went to her home at 3913 Pine St. and interviewed relatives. During the interviews, they learned that Belcher and her husband, Christopher Belcher, had returned home from a birthday party Saturday night. The couple got into an argument and Christopher Belcher struck his wife, deputies said. He was arrested Monday on a domestic violence charge. He remained in the Hillsborough County jail on $1 million bail.
Gwendolyn Belcher loved Jamaican food and often came to her house for curry goat or rice and peas, Savage said.
Affectionately called "Tissy," Belcher loved her three children, two adult daughters and a son in his teens, Savage said.
Belcher lost her own mother long ago, and treated Savage as her own. When Savage fell in her home and hurt her hand, she called Belcher at work.
"She sent over her son, who came in and helped me and said "Miss Sara, Mama said to take you up to the clinic,' " Savage recalled.
Thomas Hill, Belcher's brother, said that's the kind of person his sister was. "Gwen was a wonderful person," he said.
The Medical Examiner's Office identified Belcher's body through dental records, deputies said. A cause of death is pending.
Times staff writer Laura C. Morel and Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.