PORT RICHEY — Joe Wido's bravery during World War II earned him the Bronze Star, but on this hot day in August his fight was with squirrels.
They confounded him by eating the seeds he put out in the bird feeder. They nibbled at the screens and roof tiles. Wido set his traps with salted peanuts.
"He caught the squirrels and then set them free in a field behind Publix,'' recalled his wife of 59 years, Bobbe. "Joe wouldn't hurt a fly.''
As the sun set, Joe Wido brought his peanuts onto the porch. When he entered the den where he and Bobbe watched TV, he forgot to lock the sliding glass door. Normally, that wouldn't have been a problem in the retirement community of Timber Oaks.
"It's one of our safest neighborhoods,'' Pasco sheriff's Detective Jason Hatcher said last week as he sat with a thick white notebook labeled "Homicide 0851622.'' Joe Wido smiles from the cover.
Hatcher stares at the face of this good man, this old soldier who deserved better. He badly wants justice for him.
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Mrs. Wido doesn't recall the TV show that kept them up until 2 a.m. on Aug. 28, but the other details are burned in her brain.
"It was about 2:10. I saw him in the bedroom doorway. It sounds silly now, but I thought it was our neighbor and I said, 'Mickey, what are you doing here?' He told us to get out of the bed.''
A red bandana covered the man's mouth and nose. The elderly couple could see his red cloth gloves, but no gun.
Even at 82, even with diabetes and all his aches and pains, Joe Wido reacted with the same instincts that had made him a war hero 63 years earlier. At 6-foot-2, he towered over the intruder.
"I can take you on,'' Mrs. Wido remembers her husband saying.
In an instant, Mrs. Wido heard a "pop.'' It wasn't a loud bang, but a muffled sound. Joe fell. Mrs. Wido checked his pulse.
"You killed him,'' she said, looking up.
"No I didn't,'' the intruder argued. "I shot him in the stomach.''
Mrs. Wido pulled up her husband's T-shirt.
"You shot him in the chest!''
The robber bound Mrs. Wido's hands and feet with duct tape and left her on the floor, next to Joe. For a half-hour, she watched as the robber gathered up jewelry and about $500 in cash.
She lay there waiting to be rescued for 10 long hours. Joe's arm, which was pointed toward the ceiling, slowly stiffened. Mrs. Wido touched it and silently prayed. Shortly after noon, she heard a neighbor on the front porch, and yelled out.
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Nearly three months later, detectives still search for clues. When Mrs. Wido asked if it would be okay to accept a St. Petersburg Times reporter's invitation to talk publicly about the crime for the first time, they said yes.
"We need the public's help,'' said Sgt. Eric Seltzer, who supervises Hatcher, the lead detective on the case. "Even if you think your information is nothing, pass it to us. No matter how small, call.''
Typically, detectives don't reveal all the evidence they have collected. They won't give the caliber of the gun, for instance. But they agree Mrs. Wido has not wavered in her description of the intruder — white, about 5-feet-9, 170 pounds, dark eyebrows, dark eyes, dark hair. Possibly in his late 30s. He wore a white baseball cap with the number 20 in black. Mrs. Wido says he shot Joe with his left hand.
Tony Stewart is No. 20 on the NASCAR circuit, but the detectives couldn't find a NASCAR cap that matched that simple description. And they cautioned that using his left hand in the shooting may not mean he is left-handed.
As the intruder bound Mrs. Wido with tape, he said he had six kids and no job. Hatcher said that sounds like a line a villain once used in a movie, "only he had five kids.''
"He may have said that so she wouldn't think of him as such a monster,'' Seltzer said.
The detectives are convinced the intruder chose the home at random. He likely made his way along the back yards and made his escape on the Timber Oaks golf course, which has been closed for years. Its fairways, once lush and green, are now brown and choked with weeds.
The detectives believe they will crack the case. Somebody will talk, or a piece of evidence will surface. But they also wonder if the killer is suffering with guilt.
"We don't think he went there to kill anyone,'' Seltzer said. "He didn't kill her. He could have. He didn't tape her mouth.''
Hatcher, 38, thinks about this crime nonstop. He remembers going through Joe's dresser and finding a Nazi patch, an eagle with a swastika. Joe must have brought it back from the war.
"It made me sick to my stomach,'' Hatcher said. "You go into combat, you serve your country, only to be taken down in your twilight, taken down in your own home.''
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Bobbe Wido sits in her recliner, a few feet from the sliding glass door. She passes time reading, mostly. Joe preferred National Geographic to novels. He liked cops shows on TV.
"I miss him so much,'' she says, reaching forward to kiss her favorite picture of Joe.
She has grown daughters in Georgia and Massachusetts and five grandchildren, but this has been home for 20 years.
"I'm not leaving,'' she says. "I'm not afraid. That guy isn't coming back.''
She thinks about how it all began with Joe. He was 16 and one of the best looking boys in the high school at Cliffside Park, N.J. "He made my heart race,'' Mrs. Wido said. Unfortunately, she was three years younger and hardly ready to date the boy who lived around the corner.
Joe's parents were from Czechoslovakia. Joe built muscles lifting slabs of beef for a local butcher until he graduated from school and shipped off to war. He fought in Belgium and Germany with the celebrated 45th Infantry Division, which sustained more than 20,000 casualties in 511 days of combat.
Mrs. Wido doesn't know the details of how Joe earned the Bronze Star that is now framed in a shadow box with several other medals. He didn't talk to her about battle, and she didn't press him.
They married on Nov. 27, 1949. He built a career as a butcher and she worked for several years as a telephone operator.
In retirement, Joe became activities director for the Timber Oaks civic association. He took up golf. They played Pinochle and watched sunsets. He liked shrimp — fried, grilled, boiled, any way. Neighbors trusted him to take care of their homes when they went on vacation.
One day last week, on the screened-in back porch, Joe's bag of salted peanuts still sat on a table. Outside, the bird feeder swung from an oak. A squirrel sniffed for seeds, but they were all gone.
Bill Stevens is the Times' North Suncoast editor. You can reach him at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6250.