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Slaying leaves Sarasota on edge

From her office window, Michelle Andersen watches one of the most pampered streets in downtown Sarasota.

Straight ahead is the Sarasota Opera House. To the left is the Ritz-Carlton. And to the right is a palm-lined avenue filled with stylish art galleries, trendy boutiques and expensive design shops.

Andersen has always felt safe on Palm Avenue.

Until this week.

Inside the nearby Provenance art gallery, police found the decomposing body of owner Joyce Wishart, a 61-year-old redhead who volunteered with the county arts council and was a former marketing director for the Asolo Theatre.

On Friday, as the first of an expected 30,000 moviegoers began arriving for the annual Sarasota Film Festival, merchants and townspeople were preoccupied with what happened to Wishart and whether they should feel safe.

"We are in total disbelief," Andersen said. "The police asked me if I'd seen anything unusual, and I didn't know what to say _ nothing ever seemed unusual. Now, I find myself looking out the window, wondering about people."

Andersen, who works at Admiral Travel on N Palm Avenue, said employees have been arriving at work an hour later, at 7:45 a.m., when more people are downtown. And employees are not to work alone until the case is solved.

"It's changed our everyday pattern," said Andersen's colleague, Vicki Krone, a travel agent.

Wishart's death is the city's first homicide of the year and only the eighth since 2002. At the Sarasota Police Department, 12 of the agency's 20 detectives are working on the case, said Lt. Paul Sutton.

Police said Wishart's killing appears to be an "isolated incident," adding that it has several "unusual elements" that might lead them to a suspect.

No one has been arrested and police will not say how or when Wishart was killed, offering only that she was last seen on Saturday. She had tickets to the ballet that evening, but never showed, friends said.

Her body was discovered Wednesday after a maintenance worker unlocked her door, responding to complaints of a foul odor inside.

"It's a great mystery," said Mayor Lou Ann R. Palmer. "Everyone is curious about what occurred."

As days pass without an arrest, rumors are swirling in Sarasota, better known for highrise condominiums and sparkling beaches than violent crime. The rumors range from wild stories about the manner of her death to the condition in which her body was found.

"It leaves your imagination going crazy," said Sherry Simons, who works in Sally A. Trout Interior Design, a few doors down from the gallery. "We will all feel better when they disclose how it happened."

The shop owner, Trout, plans to install a buzzer on the front door, but says she does not feel afraid in Sarasota.

"I can't believe this was random," she said.

A few minutes later, she asked an employee: "Do you have the back door locked?"

Friends can't imagine who would have wanted to harm Wishart.

"She was a very pleasant woman," said Marsha Fottler, who worked with Wishart on the arts council. "That's the best word _ pleasant."

Wishart lived for years in Ohio, where she earned a degree in business administration from Ohio Dominican College and an MBA in executive management from Ashland University.

She was a divorced mother of four who managed a marketing and public relations firm but long dreamed of opening an art gallery in a "warm, sunny climate," she once told an Ohio newspaper.

Wishart vacationed in Sarasota and bought a stucco home in Manatee County in the late 1990s, carefully tending to her lawn in the upscale neighborhood. She worked as marketing director for the Asolo Theatre, saved her money and opened her consignment art gallery in 2001.

She had a wide circle of friends, joining one particular group of women for lunch once a month, sometimes inviting them for a candlelight gathering inside her gallery, where they would prepare meals in her kitchenette, Fottler said.

"We would gossip, talk about our lives, exchange recipes," Fottler said.

One night, after two bottles of wine, Wishart told the group she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Friends, aware that she had just opened the gallery, pitched in and helped run the business as she started chemotherapy. The treatment went well, and her dark brown hair grew back red, which she enjoyed, Fottler said.

Wishart was outgoing but private, tactfully opinionated, aggressively working to expand her business, which she hoped to franchise, said her friend, Lois Schulman. Wishart was not turning a profit at the gallery, but didn't expect to for five years, Schulman said.

She dated but was not in a serious relationship, friends said. She golfed, gardened and served on various community boards, helping to raise money for breast cancer and other charities, friends said.

But her world, mostly, was the gallery, Fottler said. She filled it with lithographs, etchings and watercolors, and her taste ranged from European paintings to modern sculpture to American folk art. She was not afraid to work alone at the gallery, Fottler said, putting in long hours, even on her day off.

"The gallery was the joy of her life," Fottler said. "That's what bothers me most. The gallery became the place of her worst and final agony. She died horribly in the place she had loved the most."

Wishart's colleagues don't believe robbery was a motive.

"There's no money in a gallery," said Robert Rubenstein, owner of the Medici gallery on South Palm Avenue. "It's all done through credit cards or checks."

He wondered if Wishart knew the killer, noting that the gallery door had been locked after Wishart's death. Additionally, shop owners said her gallery did not have a back door, so the killer likely walked away on Palm Avenue.

Rubenstein said the killing "cast a gray atmosphere" on the street, noting that his wife will no longer work alone in his gallery.

"The merchants here are pretty shook up," he said. "Nothing ever happens here."

Jesse Treff, a 55-year-old who lives in Sarasota half the year with her husband, Arthur, said although the murder is disturbing, she isn't afraid.

"I don't feel a twinge of unsafe," she said. "This is a small town. We know the names of the homeless people. I'm not worried."

She added: "I hope I'm not living in denial."

Schulman said she could not stop thinking about her friend's death.

"I've been a nervous wreck," she said. "I have been talking to God, asking that he hold her in his arms. Think of how horrible the end must have been, looking at the killer in the eyes."

Shortly after the crime scene tape was removed from Wishart's gallery on Friday, her children arrived at the police department to speak with detectives. They declined to be interviewed.

Police said their investigation continues. They ask anyone with information to call (941) 954-7070. Detectives are particularly interested in speaking with anyone who visited Wishart's gallery between Jan. 12-17.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Bradenton Herald and The Columbus Dispatch. Jamie Jones can be reached at (727) 893-8455 or jjonessptimes.com.

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