NEW PORT RICHEY — On Sunday morning, for the 14th time, Patricia Walker left her home in Jackson, Tenn., bound for Pinellas County. She had promised her son she'd see justice for the man who, deputies say, killed him.
The bond revocation hearing was scheduled at 2 p.m. Monday for 33-year-old Garrett Bruce on charges of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide after a 2011 single-car wreck that killed Walker's son Patrick Vosbein. She sat in the Pinellas courthouse and waited. The judge stalled for 10 minutes. Bailiffs sounded the halls for Bruce. Nothing.
One county north, in Pasco, detectives were looking for him too.
In recent weeks, Bruce's wife, Jennifer, told family members she was planning to visit them in South Florida but never showed up. On Jan. 13, she left a cryptic message on her father's voice mail. According to Pasco sheriff's Detective Charles Moyer, she said the family had left their home in New Port Richey, that her two young sons were okay and that she missed the rest of her family. She left out where they were and where they were headed.
Three days earlier, Jennifer Bruce checked out their two sons, Dillon, 7, and Brett, 5, from Longleaf Elementary, Moyer said. She wrote a note to the school's registrar's office that the boys would not return. Sometime in the next week, Jennifer severed ties with friends and family.
That's the only evidence, detectives say, that suggests any kind of planning before the Bruces vanished. Deputies checked the home and found no signs of foul play or evidence that the family packed up before leaving. Their only car still sat in the driveway.
Moyer said he has been to Tampa International Airport to check travel logs and has looked into the Bruces' financial statements, but found no leads. Investigators have entered Jennifer's and the children's names into a national missing persons database that will alert them if the boys are registered at a different school in any other state.
Asked whether he thinks the family is traveling together, Moyer said, "All outward appearances seem to point to that direction. But I can't prove one way or the other if that's the case."
On Dec. 11, 2011, Garrett Bruce, 26-year-old Vosbein, and 25-year-old Elliot Lewis of Tampa were riding home from a shift at Papa John's in Tarpon Springs in Bruce's Dodge Charger. Police estimated Bruce was driving at 70 mph on Meres Boulevard when he lost control and rammed a utility pole.
Vosbein, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the back seat through the glass. He was found with severe head trauma. Bruce and Lewis had nonlife-threatening injuries.
Bud Light cans and glass pipes were found in the car. Vosbein died in a hospital days later. Blood tests found Bruce's blood-alcohol level was 0.103 at the time of the crash, police said. The state presumes impairment at 0.08.
Following an investigation, he was arrested in July 2012 and made the $100,000 bail a week later. A bondsman strapped Bruce with an ankle monitor, which deputies say he removed.
Vosbein lay in the hospital for three days while his mother watched him die. Walker said that more than two years later, it still seems like the crash happened last night. She barely sleeps. When she does, invented visions of the crash fill her head.
On Tuesday afternoon, she went to Meres Boulevard to visit her son's memorial, a sign warning drivers not to drink and drive. She knelt and cried and prayed.
"It hurts," she said, "because I promised my son that I would get justice, and (Bruce is) running, and I feel like I've let my baby down. I've always been there to take care of his boo-boos, and mama can't take care of this boo-boo."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.