ST. PETERSBURG — On the day before their graduation Wednesday, 32 recruits in the St. Petersburg College police academy's 177th class welcomed a veteran Pinellas County sheriff's detective into their classroom.
Detective Michael Bailey was there to answer questions about the 33rd cadet in the class, Kelly Rothwell, who has been missing since March 12.
The recruits who bonded with Rothwell over five months wanted to know the truth. Bailey didn't want to rush to judgment. He also didn't want to give false hope.
So he told them what he told Rothwell's family: "I'm investigating this like it's a homicide."
Rothwell, 35, was last seen about 3:30 p.m. March 12 leaving a Chili's in Clearwater, detectives said.
She'd just told her friend Donna Scharrett of Palm Harbor that she planned to break it off with her live-in boyfriend, David Perry, 46.
Sheriff's detectives say tips have poured in, but they still haven't talked to Perry, who moved back to Elmira, N.Y., the same weekend Rothwell disappeared. Perry has refused to cooperate with the investigation.
The graduation was in the auditorium at St. Petersburg College's Allstate Center. A bouquet of sunflowers held a seat for Rothwell.
On the stage sat the chiefs of many Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies. In the packed audience were Rothwell's twin sisters from her native Maryland.
Theirs was a special class, said recruit Louis Buck, who gave the invocation. They made their decision to join as two Tampa police officers were killed. They started the year with the shooting deaths of two Miami-Dade officers. Then they saw St. Petersburg lose three of its own in short order.
Then they lost a friend.
"This tragedy gave us a different perspective, not only on life, but also to help us appreciate each other a little more," Buck said.
In class, one of Rothwell's nicknames was "mom." She organized fundraisers for the fallen officers, and was a team leader in her class.
Her nature was unassuming and a little shy. She was a bit intimidated when first picking up a 9mm Glock, said L.P. Miller, the chief firearms instructor at the academy.
But she blossomed under pressure.
"She was one of my better shooters in the class," Miller said.
Friends saw a transformation as she went through the academy.
"It was almost like there was a cement rod that went through her spine and she just stood so tall," said Scharrett, the best friend.
Afterward, the cadets lit white candles in the parking lot and lay a badge-shaped marble plaque and a bouquet of bright orange gerber daisies beneath a tree.
The inscription on the plaque ends: "We won't stop looking for you."