LARGO — The word spread through the state Department of Corrections' first-floor office here early Monday.
There's been a shooting in Clearwater. A man and a woman dead. Sweetgum Way W. I think that's Irene's house.
Irene Taché Polukoff, 49, was a veteran probation officer who spent most days working on the close-knit Pinellas Drug Court team on the fourth floor of the Criminal Justice Center on 49th Street.
Carol Malouf, Irene's boss, feared the worst. She knew Irene was divorcing her husband, Robert. It hadn't been going well.
Malouf raced to the fourth floor. She hoped to pull open the door to Courtroom 10 and see her friend — the woman with thick curly black hair and a cackling laugh, who made a career out of seeing through the lies of drug addicts — sitting at a table next to Judge Dee Anna Farnell. Irene would probably be tapping away at her laptop, checking to make sure the person talking to the judge was telling the truth.
Malouf opened the door. Irene's chair was empty.
Robert Polukoff's apparent decision to shoot and kill his wife and then himself in the garage of their Clearwater home left two young men without their parents, a drug court without "its conscience," and family and friends searching for signs that foretold the tragedy.
Carol Love met Irene Taché in driver's education class at Plant High School in 1977. They ran together during their "wild" single years, the years that Irene later told Carol she must not speak of in front of Robert.
Love remembers how enamored Irene was of her new beau in 1986. Then came the first bad sign, three weeks before the wedding. Robert had planned to take over his father's lucrative glass and mirror business in Dunedin, Love said, but that day he told Irene he had changed his mind. He didn't feel up to the job.
Instead, he sold handmade jewelry.
"It wasn't what she thought she was getting into in the beginning," said Love, 49, a teacher at Seminole High School.
There was no history of violence between Robert, 48, and Irene, but friends described him as "weird" and "possessive." He was secretive with Irene about his money. Friends sometimes saw flashes of his temper. Robert kicked his wife's friend Love once in the leg, she said. He was on the phone and she was talking. He wanted her to shut up.
"It completely freaked me out," Love said.
Irene had planned to divorce Robert for years, friends said. She was just waiting for the youngest of their two sons to graduate from high school. He graduated last June. Irene filed for divorce in July. She wanted Robert to move out, but he wouldn't.
Her sister, who also lives in Clearwater, offered to let Irene live with her, but Irene didn't want to leave her two French bulldogs with Robert. He was going to fight for them in the divorce, she said. He also was going to fight to get her pension benefits, she said.
Despite the stress of the divorce, friends had seen a change in Irene recently. She posted a picture of herself relaxing at a bar, cocktail in hand, on Facebook. That Irene hadn't come out in years, they said. That was the old Irene.
"She was getting ready to move on with her new life," Love said. "I just wish she would have gotten out."
For years Sue Boschen sold jewelry at the Sunsets at Pier 60 celebration on Clearwater Beach, where Robert also sold his jewelry. In January 2010, his father died in a fire at On Top of the World condominiums in Clearwater. He left his son a lot of money. Boschen thinks it was at least $2 million. Robert stopped working.
Instead of working at night, Robert went to Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. He was a good gambler, Boschen said. He won a $50,000 blackjack tournament in December.
"He was the oddest person you'd ever meet, but never violent," said Boschen, who also described him as "paranoid."
"The worst thing that ever happened to him was inheriting that money," she said. "If he was still working at the pier, they'd probably still be alive."
Robert told friends he felt ambushed by the divorce. He cornered Linda Swoy one day in their temple, Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, and broke down in tears.
"He couldn't grasp the idea that she just didn't want to be with him anymore," said Swoy, 50.
The couple fought over money in court filings related to their divorce, but friends said that was just Robert's last attempt to control her. Irene told Swoy she was resigned to having to pay her husband alimony.
"For her, it wasn't about money. It was about moving out and getting her life," Swoy said. "She just wanted out. He didn't."
Just after 9 a.m. Wednesday, Judge Dee Anna Farnell stood in front of the 100 or so people in Courtroom 10.
"We lost an integral member of our drug court team," Farnell said. "Miss Irene Taché was murdered Monday."
Gasps rippled through the crowd. Many in attendance had felt Irene's brown-eyed stare, had been on the receiving end of her chiding them to "step it up." Women dabbed their eyes with tissues.
Irene was "the drug court's conscience," one co-worker said. Every day in drug court, Irene sat next to Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Katharine Sellers. As the addicts paraded past Judge Farnell, Irene checked their files on her laptop. If someone lied about his progress, he heard from Irene.
"Everyone knew that when Miss Taché stood up, it probably wasn't going to go very well for that defendant," Sellers said.
"She was the glue that held us together," Farnell said Wednesday. She told those in the audience, some of whom have struggled with drug addiction for years, to see a lesson in the tragedy. Life can turn on a dime. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
A few feet away, someone else sat in Irene's chair. In front of him and his laptop there were four pictures taped to the table, facing the judge. They showed Irene's French bulldogs, Simon and Shanay.
The pictures have been taped there for years, Farnell said. She asked Irene to put them there one day, after hearing her talk so lovingly of her dogs.
"Drug court can be a sad place sometimes," Farnell said. "Irene put the pictures there to make us smile."
Irene is gone. The pictures will stay.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727)-445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.