Police cadet was breaking up with boyfriend before disappearance, friend says

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — The last time Donna Scharrett saw Kelly Rothwell was on Saturday, and her friend was ready to start anew.

Rothwell had joined the police academy in November, trading the corporate life for that of a police officer. Now she was going to complete the transformation. Rothwell was finally ready to end her uneasy relationship with her longtime, live-in boyfriend, too.

"She just smiled the biggest smile and said 'It's going to be okay,' " Scharrett said.

Rothwell said goodbye and headed home to give him the news.

She hasn't been seen since.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office continued its intense search for Rothwell on Wednesday. Detectives followed up on leads and tips that came in the day after they went public with news of the 34-year-old police recruit's disappearance.

One important source of information, however, remains closed to them: boyfriend David R. Perry. The 46-year-old retired New York corrections officer recently returned to that state, and detectives say he has refused to speak to them at all.

As far as detectives know, Scharrett, 46, is the last person to see Rothwell. They parted ways at the Chili's at 25987 U.S. 19 N in Clearwater about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Then Rothwell missed an outing with friends Saturday evening.

Deputies went to check on Rothwell on Sunday. There was no one home at the couple's Indian Rocks Beach rental. They found her green 2007 Subaru Outback at a nearby Holiday Inn.

When deputies called Perry on Sunday, he refused to speak to them. They found him in New York state on Monday, but when local detectives there visited him he continued his silence.

Detectives don't believe Rothwell disappeared on her own. She hadn't missed a police academy class until this week. They're trying to track down her cell phone and credit cards, just in case.

"We are treating it suspiciously," said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Tom Nestor. "However, (Perry) is a witness we'd like to talk to. Hopefully he has some information for us that can explain why she disappeared, but we haven't gotten that from him yet."

Rothwell was from Maryland and worked in human resources for the Hilton hotel chain. She moved to Indian Rocks Beach a few years ago, then started seeing Perry. He moved in. The couple lived on the beach and shared a love for the outdoors.

"They would run and bike," Scharrett said. "If it was outside, they were happy."

But they were not always happy. While Rothwell was very private about her relationship, she did tell her friend that she often contemplated ending it. Perry was just too intense, Rothwell complained.

"She attempted to leave in the past a few times but he always convinced her not to go," Scharrett said. Perry promised to give his girlfriend more space.

But the police academy changed her, Scharrett said. Studying domestic violence changed Rothwell's perspective. Training also made the petite Rothwell more assertive.

"She loved it when she could take a 200-pound man and just throw him to the mat," Scharrett said.

Rothwell also bonded with her fellow cadets. Perry was supportive at first, Scharrett said, but then tried to persuade Rothwell to return to a corporate career. That led to tension between the two, Scharrett said, and left Rothwell feeling uneasy.

But on Saturday, Rothwell wasn't worried anymore. She believed that breaking up was the right thing for both of them.

"I need this time to do what I need to do and Dave needs this time to work on himself and it's going to be fine," Rothwell told her friend on Saturday.

Scharrett volunteered to follow Rothwell home, but was told not to worry.

"She shouldn't just be another statistic in the news," Scharrett said. "She doesn't deserve to be lost somewhere. Someone must know something."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Police cadet was breaking up with boyfriend before disappearance, friend says 03/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 1:53am]

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