1. Archive

A boy sunny amid storms still missing

Despite troubles around him, adults tell of a bright, happy 8-year-old.

Zachary Bernhardt has seen plenty of turmoil in his 8 years.

He and his mother are facing eviction from their home. His father isn't around. He watched a man attack his mother in their apartment.

But as the search intensified Tuesday for the boy who disappeared from his apartment early Monday, a portrait emerged of a bright, happy youngster who excelled in school despite his family's difficulties.

In September 1998, Zachary's mother Leah Hackett wrote in a court document that a friend barged into her St. Petersburg apartment, pushed her and ripped off her shirt _ in front of her young son.

"My son is scared," Hackett wrote in a successful request for an injunction against the man, who had been her friend and boss. "I am petrified."

At Savannah Trace apartments in Clearwater, where Hackett now lives, officials have started eviction proceedings because she is behind in rent. Court records also show that in November 1998, Hackett's roommate evicted her from a High Point apartment. The roommate threw Hackett's furniture out of the apartment and changed the locks, according to a Pinellas County sheriff's report.

Over the past 14 years, public records list 11 different addresses for Hackett, who has cared for her son with no involvement from his father, police said.

But Zachary seemed unaffected. Neighbors at the complex and a school official described him as a smart and well-mannered child.

The apartment in the Savannah Trace complex at 2690 Drew St. was the last place Hackett saw Zachary before he disappeared about 4 a.m. Monday. Hackett, 29, told police she went for a walk around the complex. When she returned about 15 minutes later, she told officers, her son was gone.

Hackett, who was with her four sisters and mother Tuesday, has declined to talk with reporters. Officials at Full Spectrum Communications, where she works as a telemarketer, did not return calls.

Police said they have no indication foul play was involved and consider it a simple missing-person case. "Our scope is a missing kid," said Clearwater police Sgt. Wayne Andrews.

More than 60 people from six agencies, including the FBI, Tampa Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, helped Clearwater police and fire officials search for the boy in and around Cliff Stephens Park, which is east of the apartment complex.

Officers and fire officials using all-terrain vehicles, personal watercraft, wetsuits, golf carts and a helicopter prowled around 2 square miles of woods and lakes in the nature park.

The Police Department's command post bus, powered by gas generators, and portable restrooms were set up in the parking lot.

Tired and sweaty men and women gathered at the command post about 6 p.m., and the search was called off for the day.

Detectives, who also interviewed about 15 registered sexual predators who live in the vicinity, planned to continue some door-to-door contacts in the neighborhood.

At Eisenhower Elementary School, where Zachary is a third-grader, teachers told his classmates he was missing and answered questions. Principal Jean Eubanks said Zachary is a thoughtful and excellent student.

Zachary's mother is "a very responsive parent" who volunteered at the school's Spring Fling, a school carnival, Eubanks said.

"He was her whole world," Eubanks said. "We had no indication that anything was wrong."

Neighbors said Zachary played outside with other children but let his mother know where he was and obeyed her instructions about returning home on time.

"He's a good boy," said neighbor Susan Dalton. "He always speaks to you when he passes and smiles."

Hackett is not being investigated for neglecting the boy, Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said. He said Hackett denied she had been away from her apartment until 3 a.m. Monday, as a neighbor alleged in a Times story Tuesday.

"There's no reason to even explore that," Shelor said. "She never left her complex. We're not looking at that at all."

Nancy Sackett, administrator of the Child Protection Investigations Division at the Sheriff's Office, said investigators usually take reports when children younger than 10 are left home alone. However, the circumstances of each allegation have to be explored.

"Once we start investigating, we look at things like whether this is a routine thing and how responsible the child is," Sackett said. "Each situation has to be dealt with differently. You've got to listen to the whole story."

How long a child was left, the propensity for it happening again, where the parent was and the maturity of the child are among the things investigated, she said.

_ Times staff writer Monique Fields contributed to this report.