GIBSONTON — Melissa Easterling lived alone in a trailer by the creek, but she did not keep to herself.
She'd home in on a neighbor sitting on his porch or putting out the trash. Then she'd ask for a ride. Or some sugar for her coffee. She'd talk about her two dogs and three cats, the pain in her ears, the insect bites on her face. She had few visitors to her home, but she kept a faded sign on the door: "A hug would make my day," it said.
"To me, she needed friendship," said neighbor Marilyn Butcher, "and when she got a chance, she jumped on it."
How Easterling, 32, ended up dead, near a business park about 6 miles from her home, remained a mystery Tuesday.
Her family had been looking for her, but it was two strangers — two women who had taken their cane poles out to catch fish before work Monday morning — who discovered her body near a Riverview business park.
The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office considers Easterling's death suspicious. Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. A dive team was searching the nearby ponds for additional evidence.
Her body was partly decomposed, and her mother, Bonnie Easterling, said deputies told her that she'd been identified by her fingerprints.
Melissa Easterling, who grew up in Gibsonton and dropped out of high school, had worked as a day laborer but several years ago got on disability after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said her family. She used her money to buy the single-wide with aqua trim off U.S. 41 and paid about $240 a month to rent the land.
She had no driver's license but did have a bicycle, which she routinely rode to a nearby gas station.
She had never been married but had two children. Her mother said the state took them away because she could not care for them. "What did they say?" her mother said. " 'Failure to thrive.' "
That was the older one, who was taken as a toddler. She said the younger child never left the hospital with Easterling.
Those might have been the central losses of her life, her family said, though she rarely talked about it. She loved her nieces and nephews, "and she'd get on the floor with them, just like a kid," said brother, Ricky Easterling. They called her Punkin'.
Her pets became like children, and most of her money went toward paying vet bills, her family said. "They were her babies," said her mother.
Her mother said Melissa called her June 21 to say someone was giving away cats on Fletcher Avenue. Could she get a ride up there? Her mother said she had other plans and couldn't do it.
"The last thing she said was 'I think I got a ride,' and that's the last I heard from her," said Bonnie Easterling.
Harry White, one of Melissa's neighbors, drove out to her mother's place Saturday. He said he hadn't seen Melissa since Tuesday, either, and wondered if they would come take a look in her home.
The animals hadn't been fed, and Melissa's medication was still there. It was as if she planned to return home.
Now her family and neighbors say they wonder if Melissa had reached out to the wrong person. She had recently been spending time on the Internet, trying to meet men on singles sites.
"What a dirty shame," said Butcher, one of the neighbors. "She didn't hurt anybody. She was hungry for friendship and love."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.