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Largo couple's unusual romance takes tragic turn

Rita “Lisa” Keeler and Joseph Keeler, who married in 1988, were photographed at their Largo mobile home about 15 years ago. When she was slain at age 76, he was 40.

Special to the Times

Rita “Lisa” Keeler and Joseph Keeler, who married in 1988, were photographed at their Largo mobile home about 15 years ago. When she was slain at age 76, he was 40.

LARGO — It was the classic boy meets girl story.

Except he was 20. And she was 56.

They married and for nearly two decades they seemed happy.

But in recent years, Joseph and Rita "Lisa" Keeler's relationship became strained, friends and relatives say.

Her health declined. He struggled with mental health issues.

"They did real good the first 18 years of their marriage," said Joseph Keeler's mother, Judy Mettes, 60. "It started going downhill when she had a heart attack."

On Aug. 6, Lisa Keeler, 76, was found dead in the couple's Largo mobile home, her skull fractured, her head and throat cut multiple times. Two days later, Joseph Keeler, 40, was arrested.

Keeler, who was indicted early this month on a first-degree murder charge, plans to plead not guilty, his public defender says.

His mom thinks he did it.

A few friends think he couldn't have done it.

And one couple, Ken and Jane Balough, think, if he did do it, he wasn't in his right mind.

• • •

Joseph Keeler didn't have an ideal childhood.

His parents split up when he was 5 or 6, and his mother moved out of the family home in Indiana. He didn't see his mother much until she remarried about five years later, Mettes said.

He dropped out of school at 16. And about four years later, Keeler, who hates the cold, left Indiana for Florida, Mettes said.

When he got here, he rented a room at a Pinellas hotel. Standing 6 feet tall with a lanky frame and a boyish face, Keeler soon met a green-eyed brunet named Lisa Versluys, who managed the hotel.

Versluys, who was born in Finland, had been married twice before.

"She was lonely. He was lonely. They would talk. They started visiting. Things just worked out," said friend Linda Coomes, 56.

"He was the pursuer back 20 years ago," said Ken Balough, 55. "It was out of attraction, not that he was a gold digger or anything like that."

Keeler's mother wasn't sure because Lisa Keeler had some money, she said.

They dated just a few months and married in June 1988.

They were both happy and in love, Mettes said. Lisa Keeler bought him cars and took him on trips.

She called him "Joey." And for years, Lisa Keeler seemed to be the center of her husband's world, Mettes said.

The couple bought a mobile home 16 years ago and moved into Blue Skies Mobile Home Park in Largo.

He was an attentive husband, said Coomes, who has known Keeler for eight years. "If (Lisa) wanted a Coke, he'd run to the store to get it," she said.

But Mettes and some friends did wonder about the 36 years that separated them.

"It was like a strange relationship," Mettes said. "Like she's the mother and he's the son."

Ken Balough, who's known Keeler for 12 years, said he "just thought it was a little different."

Coomes didn't think it was odd at all. "If they didn't care about the age difference, nobody else should either," she said.

• • •

Keeler never was much of a talker. But his friends saw him as a kind, helpful guy.

He'd fix their cars for free. And if they were sick, he'd take them to doctors' appointments.

He took Coomes to the hospital when she had a heart attack six years ago. And he brought Jane Balough a hamburger and french fries when she waited at the hospital with a bad infection.

He also could be a bit quirky.

He'd show up at the Baloughs' home, hang out, go outside for a smoke and disappear. "He never did let us know he was leaving," said Jane Balough, 51.

About four years ago, friends started seeing signs that Keeler's mental health was deteriorating. Keeler had some type of mental breakdown at work and was catatonic, they say. His boss took him to a hospital, where he stayed for a few days.

After that, his behavior seemed to change. When he would visit the Baloughs, he would laugh and talk to himself.

About three years ago, Keeler apparently started having other health problems. He passed out at Coomes' home. The same thing happened about a year later at the Baloughs' house.

Around that time, Lisa Keeler had a heart attack, Mettes said. When she got home, she needed a cane or a scooter to get around.

She seemed depressed, often crying when Mettes spoke with her, Mettes said.

Joseph Keeler's eyes may have also started to wander. Two years ago, his wife told police Keeler made a false report that she was suicidal to get her out of the house because he had a girlfriend.

About a year ago, Mettes called Largo police and said Lisa Keeler was afraid of her son and that he left her without food or electricity.

Lisa Keeler later told Mettes that her husband chased her around the home with a knife.

Joseph Keeler told Mettes he had started taking his wife's pain medication.

Lisa Keeler told Jane Balough her husband would get mad when she ran out of pills.

When Mettes came to Largo in July, her son told her he was hearing voices.

She told him he needed to get treatment, but he refused.

She asked Lisa Keeler to come live with her. But Lisa Keeler told her: "I can't leave Joey."

Two weeks after Mettes left, Lisa Keeler was found dead.

Coomes said there's no way Joseph Keeler could have done it.

"I've never even seen the guy get mad," Coomes said. "I've never seen him yell."

Ken Balough isn't sure. But, if Keeler did do it, he said, "I don't think he was in his right mind."

Mettes acknowledged her son's problems, but thinks "he had to know what he was doing."

She's angry and confused.

"I don't know if I'm supposed to love Joe," she said. "I don't know if I'm supposed to hate Joe."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

The experts' take

Mental health advocates say it's difficult to gauge which people will hurt themselves or others. There are some red flags, such as a history of violence, said Martha Lenderman, a consultant on the Baker Act, a state law that allows people who are mentally ill to be held involuntarily in certain cases. But most people even with serious mental illness are more likely to be victimized, she said. "Predicting dangerousness is extremely risky," Lenderman said. Friends and relatives often avoid getting involved because they don't want to meddle in what seems like a domestic situation, said Donald Turnbaugh, a spokesman and past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Pinellas County. "They don't want to interfere and they don't know how to intervene," he said. The Baker Act is one way to get emergency treatment, but it's "kind of a last resort," Turnbaugh said. It's best to seek support before a crisis, Lenderman and other advocates say.

To get help

The National Alliance on Mental Illness advocates for people living with mental illness. It also provides resources for their friends, families and caregivers. NAMI, Pinellas County HELPLINE: (727) 791-3434.

Largo couple's unusual romance takes tragic turn 09/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 2:27pm]

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