INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Vinnie Carter had been home for only about 10 minutes when his doorbell rang Thursday evening.
It was about 5:30 p.m. and Carter, who owns a tree service, had swung by his townhouse for a quick break between jobs.
When he opened the door, he found his neighbor from two doors down on the front steps.
David R. Ernst was dripping with sweat, pale and disoriented.
"It looked like he was in trouble," Carter, 57, said.
A few seconds later, Carter found out how much trouble.
"He said to me, 'I got into a fight with Darien. She pulled a knife on me. I killed her last week,' " Carter said Saturday while recalling his encounter with Ernst.
Carter screamed for his wife, Kim, to call 911. He then grabbed his neighbor's arm, guided him down the stairs and sat him down in the driveway.
A few minutes later, Pinellas sheriff's deputies arrived.
When they entered Ernst's home at 1916 First St., they found the body of Darlene M. Mayfield, 59.
Authorities said Ernst, 45, admitted suffocating his wife, who also went by the name Darien, two weeks ago during an argument.
He then put her body in the bathtub.
Authorities said Mayfield's body was so decomposed that they could not immediately identify her or make out any signs of trauma. Carter said deputies told him later that the air conditioning wasn't on inside the house.
"The defendant admitted to suffocating the victim with his hands by pinching her nose and covering her mouth so she could not breathe," an arrest affidavit states.
The incident shocked the close-knit beach neighborhood where Ernst and his wife lived for several years.
"It's just terrible," Carter said. "It's too close for comfort."
Carter and other neighbors said they never expected such violence from Ernst.
Described by residents as mellow and soft-hearted, Ernst was known in the neighborhood as the type of guy who would help you if your car broke down.
Ernst, they said, had a job at a local law firm as a paralegal. He'd been studying to get into law school.
Mayfield, they said, told people she was a palm reader. She loved horses and had one of her own, which she stabled locally.
The couple loved kids, even though they didn't have any of their own. They had three chocolate Labs. For the past two years, Mayfield drove a neighbor's children to school. It brought in extra money.
Some neighbors, however, said they steered clear of Mayfield, who they said would get drunk and belligerent.
"She was nice, but she had a kind of nutty way about her," said Todd Sundin, 39, Carter's business partner.
Neighbors weren't sure how the couple met, but said they'd been together at least 20 years.
It wasn't a secret that they argued and fought sometimes, but neighbors said they couldn't recall police ever being called to the home.
"It was a very strange relationship, but I think they loved each other," said Carter's wife, Kim. "It's sad that it ended this way."
Vinnie Carter said he noticed cuts on Ernst's arms as he waited for police to arrive Thursday. Ernst was mumbling about taking a bunch of pills.
"He was suicidal," Carter said. "He said he was trying to kill himself for four days."
As deputies converged on the scene Thursday, Ernst was taken to a hospital. He remained there Saturday, officials said, and is being guarded by deputies while he gets treatment. Ernst's only other brush with the law in Florida is a 2007 case of unemployment insurance fraud that ended with pretrial diversion, state records show.
He is being charged with second-degree murder, the Sheriff's Office said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.