HUDSON — At 10 o'clock Tuesday night, Amy Reyburn-Phibbs drove down the dirt path beside her house that led into the woods where a man named Dave lived.
Dave was in his late 60s, a slight, sunken man who walked with a cane, his skin yellowed, his dark hair long. He and a cat named Kitty lived in a small home on cinder blocks. Dave had no plumbing, electricity or a front door, but he had a horseshoe nailed above the entrance and a picture of Jesus taped to a wall.
When Reyburn-Phibbs and her husband rented their home on Oak Drive seven months ago, the landlord told them about Dave, living back there in the woods about 200 paces from their house, and said he was harmless. In that time, the couple got to know Dave and cared about him. They brought him food and water. On this night, Reyburn-Phibbs was bringing him medicine for his lingering cold.
She got out of the car, her headlights on.
"Dave?" she shouted. "Dave?"
The place was silent. It was wrong. Even if he was sleeping, Dave always woke up and answered after his name was called a few times.
Reyburn-Phibbs dug her flashlight out of the car. She went inside the cluttered shack, where he usually slept on a couch. His black cowboy boots and cane were on the floor.
She went back out and waved the flashlight in a shed that looked like half of a sawed-off trailer where he sometimes napped.
She looked at the fire pit, where flames were still going. Then she saw him, face down. Dave liked to drink beer and Reyburn-Phibbs thought, at first, he might have stumbled and passed out. Then she looked closer.
Half his skull was gone.
She didn't scream. She drove back to her house and told her husband:
She was pale, numb. Her husband called 911. For the next several hours, authorities tromped back and forth from the street to Dave's home in the woods. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is calling his death "suspicious" and is waiting for an autopsy from the Medical Examiner's Office to release more details.
Reyburn-Phibbs, 38, doesn't know Dave's last name. She believes he had a son who is in prison. Her husband, Don Reyburn, 43, said he took Dave to a veteran's hospital for treatment — so he believes he was in the military at one time. Dave didn't talk much about his past. The Reyburns don't know where he was from or how he came to live in their woods.
"He was a good-hearted man," Don Reyburn said Wednesday in his home. He sat on a couch next to his wife, her thin body wrapped tight in a blanket.
"Dave wouldn't hurt anybody," she said.
Though Dave was in poor health, they said, he worked hard raking leaves and mowing lawns for a bit of cash, beer and cigarettes. He walked to stores to get his Natural Ice and, if he got tired on the trip back, he'd sit and drink a beer on the street while he rested. They said he never begged and that he paid $100 to live in that building because he didn't want anything for free. He got a check on the third of every month, though the couple didn't know from what agency. The only time Dave asked for anything was toward the end of the month, when he'd ask to borrow a few cigarettes or cans of beer, but that he'd pay them back. The couple said Dave made it known that he got paid on the third — and that turned out to be the day he died. They fear he befriended someone who killed him for his cash. They didn't know how much he got.
They think it was just a few hundred dollars.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.