Merle Smith walked into my office last week with a handful of snapshots that would make a medic wince. Swollen black eyes and blood galore. His blood.
"You ought to put these in the paper,'' he said. "People should know.''
Smith, 77, still carries scars — physical and mental — from another 9/11. On that date in 2005, in what had always been a comfortable, safe haven, Smith looked into the face of an intruder or, as police believe, a murderer.
Shadow, an aging Shih Tzu, normally kept guard over Smith's wife, Betty, who was confined to a hospital bed in the back bedroom of the house in Regency Park. But at 5 o'clock that morning, Shadow stood in the den, stared out toward the pool and yapped. He wouldn't stop, even when Smith came out of his room to check on the commotion.
Smith, in his pajamas, pressed his face against the sliding glass doors. Nothing. Shadow kept barking. An alarm system protected the house, and it stayed silent.
Suddenly, a 150-watt lightbulb triggered by a motion sensor lit up a small screened porch just off the pool. Smith saw the man standing in a black trench coat, chains draped around his neck. He stepped onto the pool deck to confront the intruder.
Many years ago, Smith was a soldier in the Korean War. Once he was a strapping farm boy in Iowa, strong and agile. But he hadn't been in a fight in ages. He certainly didn't want one now, but instinct kicked in. He reached for a metal pole used for opening and closing hurricane shutters. The man grabbed a screwdriver and rushed toward him.
"He never said, 'I want your money,' or anything like that,'' Smith recalled. "He just knew I could identify him, and he had to get me. He hit me several times with that screwdriver.''
But Smith fought back. "I hit him a few good whacks with that pole,'' he said. The man took off running.
By now, Betty had made her way into the kitchen, no easy chore for a woman recovering from breast cancer surgery and crippled by arthritis. She and Merle had been together since 1954 when they met at a roller rink while he was a soldier in Texas. They had two daughters, started businesses in Iowa and moved to Florida in 1997 to enjoy a quiet retirement. Now she was horrified to see her man filling the sink with blood.
Pasco sheriff's deputies and paramedics arrived quickly. Merle went to the hospital. Soon their middle class neighborhood only minutes from the Gulf View Square mall would be shaken by even worse news than this violent burglary. On the same morning, 79-year-old Beverly Bobrick was beaten to death only a half-mile away. The intruder also killed her dachshund, Peppy.
Within days, the Sheriff's Office identified a suspect in the burglary: Brian Vincent Stoll, 19, who lived in the neighborhood. He eventually went to prison for 23 years for several burglaries, including the Smiths' home. Since then, detectives have named Stoll as the prime suspect in the murder and are trying to build a case to charge him. We updated that story a few weeks ago, which is why Smith came to my office.
"I just want justice,'' he said. "I want this case to stay in the spotlight.''
After the attack, Smith couldn't stop thinking about it. He lost 30 pounds. He couldn't sleep. He pictured Beverly Bobrick and her dog, dead. He knew it could have been him, maybe even Betty and Shadow. Every month, he was in court, trying to make sure Stoll went off to prison.
He tried unsuccessfully to sell the house and move into a villa. Eventually, after counseling, he vowed not to let the anger ruin him. Despite being a full-time caregiver to Betty, he found time to check on elderly neighbors, to mow their lawns and give them rides. "We all just have to look after each other,'' he said.
He's glad he didn't have a gun on Sept. 11, 2005. He might have killed the burglar, "and strange as it sounds, I wouldn't want to live with that,'' he said.
But he has taken other precautions. Better those not be reported.