Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Woman found dead in Riverview wanted only 'love and friendship,' neighbors and family say

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 or (813) 226-3374.

Woman found dead in Riverview wanted only 'love and friendship,' neighbors and family say 06/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 7:57am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Men of Vision get to work after Hurricane Irma


    Answering the call to action after the departure of Hurricane Irma, they cleaned up fallen branches in mid-Tampa neighborhoods and in Rowlett Park, where they toiled alongside Tampa city workers, and they came out in force to clean up the Hillsborough River, pulling out gas cans, trash cans, old tires and even a …

    hillsmov092217: The Men of Vision helped clean up Rowlett Park in the wake of Hurricane Irma last week. Photo courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Schools.
  2. Visitors get in free Saturday at Tampa Bay History Center

    Visitors get in free Saturday at Tampa Bay History Center


    Times staff

    TAMPA — Nothing to do Saturday? Go back in history.

    Machine gun at the ready, a paratrooper of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Brigade advances cautiously  near Hue, South Vietnam on April 3, 1968.
  3. Howard Altman: Base chuckling as UFO website reports 'flying triangles' at MacDill


    My Twitter feed on MacDill Air Force Base has been out of this world lately.


    Michael Salla, who runs an extraterrestrial research website, claims these are images taken of UFOs near MacDill Air Force Base earlier this month. []
  4. Pittman: Why Irma drained the water from Tampa Bay


    Nobody could believe it. As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, Tampa Bay suddenly went dry. People hopped down onto the bay bottom, now a vast sandy expanse, and walked around, stunned.

    Scores of people walk on the sand of Tampa Bay along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Sept. 9. As Hurricane Irma approached, the water temporarily receded to an extreme level allowing people to walk on what used to be the waters of Tampa Bay. Tampa police later asked people to leave for their safety. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
  5. SEC says hackers may have profited from stolen info


    The Securities and Exchange Commission says its corporate filing system was hacked last year and the intruders may have used the nonpublic information they obtained to profit illegally.

    In this file photo, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman nominee Jay Clayton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. The SEC says a cyber breach of a filing system it uses may have provided the basis for some illegal trading in 2016. [AP file photo]