CLEARWATER — Laura Taft lived for her boy Connor.
When baby Craig came along, he was "like the icing on the cake," her sister-in-law said.
She put her children's needs first, those who knew her best said. She gave hugs that made the darkest day seem bright.
Early Wednesday, she was stabbed to death at her Clearwater apartment. Police say her boyfriend, Craig Alan Wall Sr., is responsible. And police suspect him in the death of Craig Jr. just 11 days earlier.
A year ago, the woman adored by many met the man who had done time and had a temper.
"You've just came out of a divorce. You're longing to have some kind of security blanket, somebody to love you and be there for you and your family, and he comes along and says 'You're beautiful. You make me smile,' " said Taft's sister-in-law, Nicole Bredeson, 26. "He bought her things and made her feel nice — sometimes. It's your typical abusive relationship."
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Taft, 29, formerly Laura Bredeson, grew up in Pinellas County. She graduated from Clearwater High School in 1999. There, she met Chris Taft when she was hired as a crew member at the McDonald's where he worked as a swing manager.
The two dated for a while, then stopped when Taft went away to college up north.
A few years later, they reconnected when she popped in on Chris Taft at work one day. They married in December 2002.
The couple divorced amicably in 2007, Chris Taft, 33, said.
They shared custody of Connor and even lived in the same complex at Park Place apartments in Clearwater.
Relatives and friends said Taft was a generous woman who planned big birthday parties for Connor and had a way of lifting spirits of those around her.
"She was lovely," said a distraught Elizabeth Wandell, a neighbor in the complex where she was slain. "I loved her."
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In February 2009, Taft met Wall. They lived across the street from one another at the Keystone Mobile Home Park on Clearwater-Largo Road, said park manager Dan Smith.
Sometimes Smith heard the couple arguing loudly.
"It was a rocky road," he said.
Wall moved into Taft's home there before the two moved to Park Place, east of U.S. 19.
Gerard Schulmeyer, who lived in the unit below them, said Wall is "an odd character."
Gerard said he asked him three times to turn down his music. Finally, he called the office to complain. After he did, Wall came down "huffing and puffing and snorting" at him.
Nicole Bredeson, who is married to Taft's older brother, Rob, said Taft was more sister than sister-in-law to her.
She said she tried to give Wall the benefit of the doubt when she met him, though she knew he had been in prison for a 1993 armed robbery.
"He was a very hostile person," she said. "He automatically assumed you were his enemy."
On Thursday evening, Wall was still hospitalized in Sumter County, where deputies found him unresponsive in a car a few hours after Taft was killed. It's unclear when he will be extradited to Pinellas County to face a charge of murder.
Clearwater police are awaiting a report from the medical examiner in their investigation of how Craig Jr. died. The baby was in his father's care when he went into cardiac arrest Feb. 5 and died the next day.
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Bredeson said she finds it hard to believe Taft is gone.
"I keep thinking the phone is going to ring and it's going to be my sister," she said.
Despite losing her baby boy two weeks ago, Taft still found time to help plan an arcade-themed birthday party for Connor, who turns 6 on Saturday.
At her baby's memorial on Valentine's Day, family and friends released 39 balloons — one for each day of the boy's short life.
At Taft's memorial, they plan to release 29 balloons — one for each year of her short life.
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157. Katie Sanders can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.