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Life a struggle for family of slain mom

(ran Vendor, SS editions of METRO & STATE)

Drew Halpin sat in a darkened theater watching Finding Neverland, the story of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. Drew pulled his shirt up over his head and began to sob, tears soaking the fabric.

"What's wrong?" his father, Don, asked, reaching over to hug him.

"It isn't fair," the 8-year-old insisted. "Tinkerbell can come back to life, but my mom can't."

One year ago this weekend, his mother, Niccole Halpin, was beaten to death in her bedroom by a masked intruder. Drew and his brother, Max, who witnessed the attack but escaped injury, defiantly call her killer the Coward. Memories of the man, who remains at large, continue to haunt them.

Max, 10, curls up each night in his father's king-sized bed, too scared to sleep alone. The boy approaches strangers at playgrounds or at the grocery store to tell them, "The Coward killed my mum."

The boys have been reunited with their father, Don Halpin, 51, who divorced Niccole about a year and a half before the attack. And they have moved back into the same home at 15 Clearview Drive where their 32-year-old mother was murdered.

As long as Niccole Halpin's killer remains free, life is on hold for her family, frozen by hurt and fear.

Don Halpin, a retired corrections officer, doesn't work because he refuses to leave the boys with a babysitter. Nor will he date until the killer is arrested.

Instead, he leans on routines to get through the day. On Sundays, he takes the boys to church, then to lunch at the same restaurant, then bowling.

"It's been a year, but it seems like five," he said.

For Pinellas sheriff's detectives, the murder remains a mystery. They have clocked 700 hours on the case, interviewed 150 people and prepared 200 supplemental reports, but they are not ready to name a suspect or make an arrest.

"It's definitely still ongoing," said Detective Ed Judy, 37, leading his first murder investigation. "I don't see this going to a cold file."

Initially, more than a dozen detectives were assigned to the case. Now there is Judy and one or two others who help him follow up leads.

Judy said he is still waiting for test results on some evidence being examined by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He has also contacted a federal agency for help, though he would not name it.

The momentum of the investigation into the murder ebbs and flows with each piece of new information, Judy said, but basic questions remain unanswered.

"We have a lack of a motive," the detective said. "Nothing stolen out of the house, nothing disturbed. This is very personal."

Investigators think the murder unfolded like this: About 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 8, 2004, Niccole Halpin and the boys returned home after going out to dinner and dropping off Niccole's boyfriend, Christopher Catuogno, 32.

The intruder, dressed in a ski mask and dark clothes, was already inside.

"She realized something was wrong and she made a phone call to Christopher," Judy said.

The intruder attacked Halpin and chased her through the house. Catuogno, who was still on the line, heard the beating and called 911.

Halpin ran to her bedroom, where Max was playing video games, Don Halpin said. The intruder beat her, spattering her blood onto the front of Max's shirt. Investigators said the man used a weapon, but won't say what it was.

Drew, who had been in another part of the house, heard his mother's screams and the intruder running from the bedroom, Don Halpin said.

Drew grabbed Max and led him into the bathroom attached to their mother's bedroom. When he realized there was no way to lock the door, Drew took Max to a second bathroom down the hall, locked them inside and climbed in the bathtub.

Deputies arrived minutes later, but the intruder was gone.

Early in the investigation, detectives interviewed Don Halpin and determined that the ex-husband had been working at the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach when the attack occurred.

They do not think he was involved; nor do they suspect Chris Catuogno. Phone records show he was at home in Palm Harbor during the beating.

Investigators say they are still trying to confirm where Niccole's ex-boyfriend, Daniel Welch of Clearwater, was at the time of the attack.

"What we've said all along about Mr. Welch is that he is a person that we continue to talk to," said Mac McMullen, a sheriff's spokesman. "We're still exploring his timeline."

In a brief interview with the St. Petersburg Times last February, Welch said he was working on his van during the time of the attack, which investigators say occurred between 9:30 and 9:50 p.m.

Welch gave two taped statements to detectives and allowed them to search his car and home, said his attorney, Nat Kidder. When investigators asked him to make a yet another taped statement, he hired Kidder.

"They're so focused on Dan Welch that it's clouded their investigation," Kidder said. "He absolutely denies any complicity in the homicide."

Kidder said investigators assume his client is guilty because he has retained a lawyer.

After being told of Kidder's statements, McMullen said: "This is an open investigation, and it would be inappropriate to respond to Mr. Kidder's comments at this time."

In the meantime, the Halpin boys wait. They try to adjust to life without their mother, a woman who baked cookies at Christmas, knew exactly what to say to ease their fears and chose, from all restaurants, to go to Chuck E. Cheese's on Mother's Day.

"I'd tell her we could go anywhere, but she always wanted to do what the boys wanted," Don said.

After the attack, Max and Drew moved into their father's condo in Clearwater and stayed there through the school year. For all those months, Halpin, scared that the killer would hunt down the only witnesses, sat in the parking lot of Plumb Elementary School, peering into the boys' classrooms.

In late June, Halpin drove the boys to New England, far from Florida and the nightmares. He showed them the chapel in Massachusetts where he married Niccole and told them she arrived in a horse-drawn carriage an hour late, which, he said, women tend to do.

They went to Indian Head Rock in New Hampshire, a special spot where Don and Niccole had vacationed. Halpin and the boys climbed high into a lookout tower. They opened an envelope and sprinkled some of her remains into the wind.

When they returned to Florida a month later, Halpin drove by the house on Clearview Drive. He was trying to sell it, but no one was interested. He told the boys to stay in the car while he checked on a few things, but as he walked inside, they followed.

Max and Drew began to tell him about the crime, something they had not done before. They showed him where their rooms were and seemed happy to be back.

They decided to make a picnic at the house the following day. Then they had a sleepover. Worried about the possible effect on the boys, Halpin contacted a grief counselor.

"She told me that they feel like their mother picked this place out for them and this is where they want to be," he said.

Halpin said he is often overwhelmed and consults counselors on how to fill the void Niccole left. Most nights, they watch an episode of The Three Stooges on DVD. This Christmas, Halpin helped the boys make their own cookies.

"I tell them, "Live your life every day like it's a beautiful thing. Your mom is watching you and that is what she wants for you.' "

This weekend, Halpin wanted to keep the boys busy. He planned it all out: Friday night, they would go to the circus, just as they did last year. They'd have cotton candy and soda and take in the magic of the elephants and high-flying acrobats.

Saturday, the anniversary of the attack, they'd visit Niccole's headstone, see her picture and say hello. Then they would go to Mass, kneel down and pray that she was with them.