CLEARWATER — Thirty years ago today, Wendy Huggy phoned her grandparents in Pasco County from Countryside Mall to tell them she was getting a ride home from a friend. They never heard from her again.
The couple reported the 16-year-old missing, but finding nothing to indicate foul play, authorities surmised Huggy had disappeared by choice. They closed the case after just 15 days.
Three years later, in 1985, when Huggy's grandparents still hadn't heard from her they inquired about the case again. That's when deputies began to suspect that something untoward may have taken place.
They looked at the case again, but crucial time had been lost.
Today, the scant details of what is known about Huggy's disappearance are tucked inside a Pasco County sheriff's case file that through the years has passed through the hands of eight different investigators. One detective made it an obsession, trying to solve the case until the day he died.
These days, the assumption is that Huggy is dead, her body likely among those of thousands of unidentified homicide victims. It hasn't diminished efforts to find her.
"If we can find her remains, then I can start to find out what happened to her," said Lisa Schoneman, the latest Pasco County sheriff's detective to pursue the case. "She deserves it — to have the world know how she lived and how she died. I think everybody deserves that."
• • •
Wendy Huggy came to Florida looking to rebuild. Though she was only 16, she left behind a husband in her native Illinois. The marriage was an unhappy one, and she intended to leave him for good, her family said.
She moved in with her grandparents, Sidney and Paula Richards in Holiday. She had dropped out of high school, but she wanted to pass a GED test, said her aunt Patty Spragg. Her hope was to attend beauty school.
She had a plan. All she needed was a place to enact it.
"She was a darling little girl and I loved her," said Spragg, 59, of Hudson.
Huggy's mother, Susan Leverence, was a former Playboy bunny. In the 1970s she lived for a time at the Chicago Playboy mansion and traveled the country in Hugh Hefner's Playboy jet as one of the elite "Jet Bunnies."
Leverence, who later worked as a flight attendant for Air Wisconsin Airlines, was often away for long periods of time, unable to devote attention to her daughter. So Huggy came to Florida.
"She had a rough life bouncing back and forth between her mom and my parents," Spragg said. "But to me she didn't seem any different than any other child."
But there was something else, Spragg said. Something few people knew and no one talked about.
Huggy was pregnant.
• • •
Huggy had lived in Florida for two months when she disappeared. Her grandparents dropped her off the morning of April 7, 1982, a few blocks from the Patrician Apartments at Nursery and Belcher roads. She planned to meet up with her uncle, Greg Richards, who was five years her senior and lived in the apartment complex, according to a sheriff's report.
After that, the details become murky. At some point, Huggy met with a friend named Kim and Kim's mother, who also lived at Patrician Apartments, deputies said. They went to Clearwater Beach. Then, Huggy got a ride to Countryside Mall, where she called her grandfather.
She didn't need him to pick her up, she told him. A man named Don was going to bring her home.
A week later, with no word from her, Huggy's grandparents reported her missing. But the case was closed when deputies learned she was married — a fact that made her a legal adult, free to run away if she chose.
It wasn't unlike Huggy to wander away, her family said. But she was supposed to start work at a Wendy's restaurant April 8. They doubted she would have given that up or abandoned her dreams. Above all, they couldn't believe she would never contact them again.
• • •
Of all the cases that Detective Bobby Hamm investigated in his 27 years with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Huggy's was the one that seemed to stick with him the most, his colleagues say. He was a patrol deputy when she went missing. Years later, as a detective in the sheriff's crimes against children unit, he vowed to solve the case.
"She got to him," Schoneman said. "He always said if it was the last thing he did, he would find Wendy. I think he just really felt bad that this young 16-year-old, with her whole life ahead of her, was just gone and nobody knew why."
In 2001, Hamm worked what was perhaps the case's the biggest lead. Investigators that year exhumed the remains of a woman whose body was found floating in the waters off Anna Maria Island in September 1982. A rope was wrapped around her waist and tied to a concrete block. She wore two turquoise rings — similar to jewelry that Huggy was last known to be wearing.
But dental records and a blood comparison with Huggy's mother proved there was no match.
Hamm died in 2007. Four years later, authorities finally identified the remains as those of Amy Rose Hurst, who vanished from New Port Richey in 1982. Her husband, William Hurst, was later charged with her murder.
If nothing else, Spragg says, efforts to find Huggy led to closure for another family — the one bright spot in an otherwise dreadful mystery.
• • •
Few people alive today remember Wendy Huggy. Her grandparents have since died. So has her mother, who always held onto hope of finding her missing daughter.
But some still feel the void she left behind.
Cash Leverence is Huggy's half-brother. Though he never met his sister, having been born after she vanished, he witnessed the effects her disappearance had on their mother.
"She was tore up for years," said Leverence, 29. "It definitely bothered her."
As a child, Leverence remembers periodic phone calls his mother would receive from Florida sheriff's deputies or members of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"She talked about it a little bit, but not too much that I remember," Leverence said. "Growing up with her, you could see the toll it took."
Spragg, too, remembers her sister quickly changing the subject whenever Huggy became a topic of conversation.
"We were all devastated because this is not what you expect or plan for," Spragg said.
She prays that Huggy is still alive somewhere. Even now, there are fleeting moments when she spots a young face at the supermarket or on TV and thinks her niece has returned. But she knows better.
"In my heart of hearts, I doubt very much that she is still with us," Spragg said. "At this point, I don't think we're ever going to know."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Reach Dan Sullivan at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]