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Haunting homicides

The last time Barbara Taylor saw her daughter alive was a crisp Sunday in December.

Cynthia Wertman had joined her family in prayer at Brandon Fellowship Baptist Church. Afterward, they sat around a big table at Durango Steakhouse, where they had lunch and laughed together. As they waited for their meal, Taylor recalls watching her daughter stroll across the street to Walgreens to buy a poinsettia, its tapering red leaves catching the sunlight as she returned.

Five days later, Wertman, 36, was dead. Two weeks before Christmas, she and a friend were killed in an east Tampa house fire that authorities say was intentionally set. Poinsettias covered the casket at her funeral.

Like any parent, Taylor couldn't believe her oldest daughter was gone. But to add to her pain, she has no one to hold responsible for her daughter's death. Wertman's slaying, like 11 others in Tampa last year, remains unsolved.

"I would give anything if they could catch the person who did this," Taylor said. "I still can't deal with it."

Despite the best efforts of police detectives, some murderers are never brought to justice. There is no one to blame, nowhere for families to direct the anger and hurt. And each passing day makes an investigation more difficult, increasing the chances the crime never will be solved.

While the names and faces of many murder victims fade from the

public eye in short order, unsolved cases mean lingering torment for police and relatives.

Rick Childers, a Tampa police homicide detective for 13 years, said the most difficult murders to deal with are those without an arrest.

"Some of them still stick with you," Childers said. "We try to say when we go home we leave this job here, but in all honesty, you can't."

"You want to know why'

Taylor, 57, was driving to work Dec. 6 when she heard on the radio that two people had died in a house fire just north of Ybor City. She never imagined it would be her daughter and a friend.

Wertman, 36, grew up in Seffner, graduated from Brandon High School and Hillsborough Community College and fulfilled her dream of becoming a registered nurse. She worked at a Plant City nursing home, and she and her ex-husband shared custody of their two daughters, ages 8 and 15.

Wertman and Carl Gambrell, 35, became friends when she worked at another nursing home where he managed the library. Gambrell was well-liked, Taylor said.

Why anyone would want to see him dead is a question that haunts her. The couple was found after an early morning fire destroyed Gambrell's home. Investigators determined it was arson.

"It's really frustrating because we never expected anything like this," Taylor said. "You want to know why it happened right now."

That is the problem faced by homicide detectives: knowing what happened. A detective's case is only as good as its evidence and witnesses.

The first 72 hours after a murder are the most important, police say. Detectives must learn about the victim, unearth clues and conduct important interviews. In those three days, detectives have the greatest hope of solving the crime because evidence is freshest and witnesses are still close by.

"You keep hoping as a detective that a break will come or a reluctant witness will come forward," said Tampa police homicide Sgt. George McNamara.

McNamara supervises a squad of 10 homicide detectives, who last year investigated 45 homicides in Tampa. The detectives respond to every murder, assault, suicide, police shooting and fire death.

They carry heavy case loads and work long and irregular hours. They deal with grisly crime scenes and grieving friends and relatives while concentrating on minute details and important facts.

"My main goal and objective is to find out who killed them and get them off the street," said Tampa homicide Detective Julie Massucci. "It gives the family some satisfaction that it won't happen to someone else.

"That's the hardest part," Massucci continued. "That this person is walking around thinking they got away with it. I just want to see them in court and tell them that they are going to pay for what they did."

"Somebody has to know'

When Sonya Reynolds, 29, of Georgia, hadn't heard from her childhood friend, Tina Marie King, in several months, she became worried. She called the police, local hospitals and the morgue. Eventually, she bought a plane ticket to Tampa.

King, 28, had come from a respected family of farmers near Thomasville, Ga. After she graduated from high school, she worked as a private sitter for the elderly. King moved to Tampa five years ago, and turned to crack cocaine and prostitution. Reynolds didn't approve, but she loved her friend and they kept in touch.

When Reynolds came to Tampa to look for her friend in late September, she reported King missing to local authorities. She spent days walking the streets of King's neighborhood with an old photograph, hoping someone had seen her. No one had.

The day her plane landed back in Georgia, Reynolds got a call from a Tampa detective. King's nude, decomposed body was found in October behind a Platt Street business. She was identified by a tiger tattoo on her back. A clothesline was found around her neck.

"It was a shock," Reynolds said. "I didn't believe it could be true. I was hoping they had made a mistake."

Reynolds said King's killing has been difficult to handle because detectives still have so many questions. They aren't sure exactly how King died or where or why she was murdered.

Elizabeth Pressley knows that feeling. Her brother, John Junior Jordan, 35, was gunned down in his car after an argument with four men at a stoplight at N Habana Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in August. Jordan had gone to the store to buy Pampers and ice cream for his three children.

"I couldn't believe that no one knew what happened," said Pressley, 38, of St. Petersburg. "You just pick a strange car out of the clear, blue sky. That is cruel and full of hatred to do something like that."

Jordan, who grew up in Philadelphia and worked as a welder, had been shot in the head and was not able to give police a description of his assailants before he died.

"It's harder than anything that they didn't arrest anyone," Pressley said. "Somebody has to know something."

While some survivors of victims blame police when there is no arrest, Pressley has only praise for Tampa detectives. She said she imagines it is a difficult job to investigate such a crime.

"If you don't come up with physical evidence, then you are between a rock and a hard spot," Childers said. "And for whatever reason, some people are afraid to talk or some don't want to talk. They think they can handle keeping it inside."

All of the homicide detectives have cases that, for a variety of reasons, continue to haunt them.

For Childers, it is the case of 71-year-old Jean Roy. The 1950s star of the professional wrestling circuit was shot in the head in 1992 at Corsica Jean and Juanita's Palace, the bar he owned with his wife.

Roy's wife discovered his body at the back door of the bar when he failed to come home from work one March morning.

"I still think I can solve that one to this day. If I can find this girl . . ." Childers said, his voice trailing off.

Massucci recalls the killing of Michael Hanlon, 44, who was found stabbed to death on the floor of his bedroom in his south Tampa home in late 1995.

"You know what I like to think?" Massucci asks. "I like to think that people eventually have a conscience and sometimes they slip and say something. I like to feel that eventually we catch them."

McNamara is most bothered by the 1995 slaying of Ira Albers.

Albers, 67, was shot in the leg and bled to death in the driveway of his north Tampa home in June, as he warmed up his station wagon to drive to his daughter's business. The retired truck driver was best known as the "Bike Man" because he spent most of his days fixing bicycles for neighborhood kids.

McNamara knew Albers and his family.

"We are human as well," McNamara said of the detectives. "The crime scenes don't go away. You can recall them like the days of the week."

Questions outdo answers

A murder arrest will not bring a loved one back, but it does provide some comfort.

"It's such a senseless, horrible crime," said Daisy Noto of Tampa. "But when a person is caught, at least you have someone to direct your anger at."

In 1987, Noto helped create the Homicide Survivors Group, a monthly support group where about 30 people gather and find solace in sharing their experiences with others.

They are from all walks of life, all races, all ages. Their loved ones were killed as recently as last month or as long ago as 30 years. The organization's mailing list has 750 names.

Those who attend the meetings share their anger, their sadness and their pain. They feel like outcasts, and when they have no one to blame, they blame themselves.

"It's like a slap in the face," said Noto, whose mother was murdered in 1983. "You see your loved one in the morning and the next thing you hear they are dead."

And that might not be all you hear.

After Thomas Betancourt, 23, was shot to death as he drove through a familiar west Tampa neighborhood in December, the rumors ran rampant.

Some said he was killed in a bad drug deal; others thought he may have argued in traffic, and still others said it was a random shooting. The stories brought more pain to Betancourt's family.

"When it happens and you don't have any answers, it drives you crazy," said Shirley Betancourt, 44, Thomas' stepmother. "You are reaching out trying to figure out why."

A week after his death, Betancourt's family made a public plea to help find the killer. Meanwhile, detectives pounded on doors and tracked down the gun used in the shooting.

Two months later, police arrested 18-year-old Shawn Taylor and charged him with killing Betancourt. Police said the shooting may have occurred over a drug sale gone awry, but no narcotics were found in Betancourt's car.

Holding on to hope

Just when detectives fear a murder will remain unsolved forever, new evidence can bubble to the surface, proving that anything is possible.

Seventeen years passed before Tampa police knew who killed elderly Hyde Park apartment manager Chester Wilber Brown. Brown, 75, was beaten and strangled with an electrical cord in 1979.

Though two men were arrested after the murder, both were cleared and police had no other leads. Then, in October, a detective with the Longmont Police Department in Colorado called Tampa.

Longmont Detective Lee Scott told police he was interviewing a woman in Utah on an unrelated case when she told him her sister, Claudia Schauerhamer, had confessed to killing Brown. Scott also had found a woman in Pueblo, Colo., who counseled Schauerhamer in jail and had heard details of the murder.

Schauerhamer now faces charges of first-degree murder and robbery in Brown's death. She will be extradited to Tampa after she serves time in California on other charges.

"When I heard it was real, I was elated. It's the case of a lifetime," Scott said. "To clear a case that's thousands of miles away and 17 years away, I can't think of a better thing to do."

All any detective really wants to do is find the answers, he said.

Tampa homicide detectives never make promises, but they say if Brown's murder can be solved after 17 years, there is hope for families that justice will be served in the death of their loved one.

"This is something where you keep working and working, and you don't leave any stones unturned," McNamara said. "You always remain positive as much as you can."

The skeletal remains of GILDA ERICKA THOMAS, 29, were discovered May 29 in a vacant field near N 38th Street and E Lake Avenue. The nursing student was last seen alive a month earlier.

DENTON CHRISTOPHER DENNIS, 30, was attending a party at the Labor Temple, 1520 E Ninth Ave.,just before 4 a.m. March 2 when a group of men burst into the building firing guns. Dennis was shot dead when he approached them with his own gun.

TINA MARIE TOLBERT, 34, was asleep in her home in the 2600 block of E 25th Avenue when someone entered the house just after 5 a.m. May 28 and stabbed her in the chest. She ran to her aunt's house across the street, where she collapsed and died.

JOHN JUNIOR JORDAN, 35, was in his car at a traffic light at N Habana Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just before 10:30 p.m. Aug. 11 when a gray Toyota Cressida stopped beside him. Jordan argued with the four men in the car and was shot numerous times.

LEROY ALFONSO HENRY, 39, was confronted by a man as he filled a Tampa Tribune newspaper rack at 10th Street and 15th Avenue just before 6:30 a.m. Aug. 15. Henry, 39, was shot once and later died.

BOBBY LEE GRACE, 17, was talking to his girlfriend on a pay telephone outside the Chip-In Bar at 1601 E Columbus Drive when two men approached and shot him. Grace ran into the bar for help, collapsed and died about 1 a.m. Aug. 27. The men drove off in a dark-colored car with tinted windows.

BEVERLY DIANN BARKER, 34, stumbled down a dead-end street and died in the driveway of a home in the 1800 block of E Knollwood Avenue at 9 a.m. Sept. 8. She had been shot in the head. Barker, of Dade City, had not been seen by her family in several months.

TINA MARIE's body was found behind a Platt Street business Oct. 28. The 28-year-old convicted prostitute, who worked along Kennedy Boulevard, had been strangled. It is unclear how long she had been dead.

A house fire in the early morning hours of Dec. 6 claimed the lives of CARL GAMBRELL, 35, and CYNTHIA WERTMAN, 36, at Gambrell's home in the 2600 block of 26th Avenue. Police and fire investigators determined the blaze was set by an arsonist.

KENNETH STOKES, 62, was found shot to death in the lobby of the Economy Inn at 830 W Kennedy Blvd. in the early morning of Dec. 22 by hotel guests. He was a desk clerk. Police discovered money had been taken from the cash register.

The skeletal remains of an unidentified woman whom police have dubbed JANE DOE was discovered Oct. 13 in woods north of Adamo Drive and 28th Street. Authorities determined she was white, between 40 and 45 years old and between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-5. She was wearing a black pullover T-shirt and blue denim shorts.