BROOKSVILLE — Melba Miller wanted to believe.
More than a thousand miles away in Rochester, N.Y., Miller tried to have faith that her 18-year-old daughter, DeAnna Stires, was okay.
Miller hadn't heard from DeAnna since Christmas Day.
"She never goes days without calling or texting me or her sisters," Miller said. "I just kept holding on to hope. Then, the other night, I got the worst call ever."
Just before midnight Saturday, Miller's ex-husband, Barry Stires Jr., called from Brooksville. Detectives had just visited to tell him DeAnna's body had been found in the woods in Levy County, some 60 miles from home.
Miller dropped the phone and cried out.
Family and friends say Stires' death cut short her efforts to recover from decisions that had derailed her education and landed her in juvenile court. Those mistakes, her loved ones said, didn't define the young woman they described as bubbly, kind and loving.
"We want her to be remembered for who she was," said her aunt Betty Erhard of Brooksville. "Unfortunately, there were circumstances in her life which caused her to go down a dark path."
Stires lived on the west side of Brooksville with her father, Barry Stires Jr., who reported her missing on New Year's Day. The last time he or her sisters saw her, Miller said, was a few days before Christmas.
About 12:30 p.m. Friday, a man hunting deer on private property along State Road 24 discovered Stires' body in a swampy area near the Waccasassa River, said Levy County sheriff's Lt. Scott Tummond.
Investigators suspect she was already dead when someone left her there, Tummond said.
The Hernando Sheriff's Office, the lead investigating agency, has released no other details, including the cause of death.
Born in Spring Hill and raised in Brooksville, Stires was the second-youngest of four sisters. Her parents divorced in 2007 after 18 years of marriage.
Miller said the plan was for the girls to come live with her in New York, but it didn't work out that way. They remained close through visits and phone calls.
Stires attended Brooksville Elementary and Parrott Middle schools and started at Hernando High.
"She wasn't involved in sports or clubs, but the homecoming game, the pep rally, she would be there," said longtime friend Morgan Vossler.
Another friend, Adriana Weatherby, recalls hanging out with Stires at Tom Varn Park in Brooksville, where they talked about going to college together to become nurses.
"She was such a fun girl, always smiling," said Weatherby, who created a memorial Facebook page this week. The page, titled "Rest in Peace DeAnna Lee Stires," had nearly 600 fans by Wednesday night.
Stires spent a lot of time with her grandfather, Barry Stires Sr., playing Monopoly and cards and watching movies at his house across the street. When Barry Sr. suffered a heart attack in early 2011, DeAnna watched as paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him. She later had "RIP Papa" and a pair of angel wings tattooed on her lower back.
The loss was a turning point for Stires, family and friends said. She stopped going to school and started hanging with an older crowd.
"She got involved with the wrong people, people outside of school," Vossler said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Stires had been arrested four times, all in Hernando County before she turned 18.
She was charged with grand theft in June 2011 after she admitted to stealing her sister's digital camera and selling it for $20, according to a sheriff's report. Her family members told a deputy she had a substance abuse problem and stole items from the home to trade them for prescription drugs.
A battery charge the following month was later dropped.
In October 2011, Stires was arrested when a deputy searching her purse found a Xanax pill and a clear pen tube caked with a white residue. She pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia, and the court withheld adjudication, records show.
Six months later, Stires was charged with drug trafficking, a first-degree felony. According to a sheriff's report, Stires was at Walmart with someone who shoplifted. A responding deputy who saw Stires toss her purse under a car searched the bag and found a prescription bottle containing 11 Vicodin pills. She told the deputy the person listed on the prescription had asked her to hold the bottle.
Stires pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor paraphernalia possession, and the court again withheld adjudication.
She started to get back on track, friends and family said. She attended drug counseling, earned her high school equivalency diploma and had planned to enroll in Pasco-Hernando Community College's certified nursing assistant program.
"She always wanted to help people," Miller said. "That's what she was meant to do."
Barry Stires Jr. declined an interview request from the Times, but offered a comment through his sister, Erhard.
"She was a precious gift," he said. "Her mistakes only say she was human. Those who knew her can only really know how special she was."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes.