She's the other woman in Michael Schiavo's heart

Published March 26, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

They met by chance at a dentist's office.

Neither was searching for love, friends say.

She had been through a divorce.

His wife lived in a nursing home.

The years had left him heartbroken and lonely, friends say.

He bonded with the new woman over dinners and long talks. It was complicated, but they fell in love, friends say.

Still, Michael Schiavo has always made it very clear:

"He has one wife, and her name is Terri," said a family friend, Gloria Centonze. "He does not refer to anyone else as his wife, and never has."

How, then, to explain Jodi?

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Jodi Centonze, 40, is Michael Schiavo's live-in girlfriend, mother of their two children, 1 and 2{ years old.

Centonze occupies a peculiar role in the national debate over Terri Schiavo _ in the middle of it, but never a public part of it.

"She wants to stay out of it," said her brother, John Centonze. "She says this is not about her, it's about Terri."

Yet she has been anathematized, her name invoked as a key reason why Schiavo, 41, should not control his wife's fate. Outside Terri's hospice, protesters hold signs that say, "Michael don't plan the wedding yet, we still have hope!" and "Arrest Mike for bigamy."

Schiavo has moved on, his opponents say, and should give Terri back to her parents.

"Remaining married to him is an embarrassment," said David Gibbs III, the lawyer for Terri's parents. He tried unsuccessfully to get Terri a divorce last month, accusing Schiavo of "open adultery."

Schiavo's opponents have directed much vitriol toward Jodi Centonze, threatening her life and her two children. In dozens of letters mailed to the couple's Countryside home, some critics have called her a whore and her children bastards, relatives say.

Through it all, Centonze has remained quietly by Schiavo's side. She was there long before the television cameras, before Terri's condition became a national obsession.

Jodi Centonze has visited Terri, shopped for her, washed her clothes, relatives say. She has accepted her role as the other woman, and believes Michael Schiavo has enough room in his heart for both, relatives say.

"She knows she was not his first choice," said one of Schiavo's friends, Russ Hyden of Gainesville. "But we don't always get to choose."

After all, he wasn't her first choice, either.

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Jodi Centonze met the man she would later marry during her senior year at Pinellas Park High.

She was 18, making all As, working part-time at an insurance company.

She lived in Clearwater with her father, an auto mechanic, and her mother, a clerk for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. She has three brothers.

Her father, Joseph Centonze, was strict with his only daughter, always an early curfew, no outings on school nights. He rarely approved of the boys she brought home. He was gruff and private, not a man to be sassed, Centonze said in court records.

(Jodi Centonze could not be reached and has declined all interview requests, her brother said. Details of her life come from interviews with friends, relatives and civil lawsuits filed in the 1980s.)

Centonze met Scott Blough in her senior year. He was a year and a half younger.

They continued dating after Centonze graduated in 1983. She worked full-time for an insurance company and bought her own condominium in Clearwater.

"She's a real go-getter, very independent" her brother said.

Blough mowed lawns before he got a job maintaining private planes at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Later, he became an insurance agent.

The couple married on Oct. 18, 1986. They stayed at a hotel on the beach on their wedding night, then took a short weekend cruise.

The couple was happy at first. Friends came over for card games and barbecues. They spent sunny weekends on the gulf in their 1989 Wellcraft boat.

They talked of starting a family.

But then Jodi Centonze's life took a dramatic turn.

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Tall and slim, Centonze had always been healthy.

But a car crash in December of 1987 left her with chronic pain in her neck and shoulders. As she was recovering eight months later, another car slammed into her during a hit-and-run accident on Belcher Road, according to court records.

She was constantly seeing doctors and going to therapy. She had to wear a neck brace, had trouble carrying groceries, couldn't walk, sit or bend without pain. She couldn't go out on the boat, didn't feel well enough to spend time with friends.

She sued both drivers to pay for her medical expenses. The first case settled with undisclosed terms. The outcome of the second case was unclear in court records.

Around the same time, Centonze's father was hurt when a car crossed a median on an interstate and slammed into his vehicle, Centonze said. He died three weeks later at 54 years old.

The strain took a toll on Centonze and her marriage, she said in court records.

"I just kind of flipped out," she said. ". . . I just was all within myself. I didn't talk to anybody. I didn't have anybody. I just wanted to be alone."

Her husband, Blough, was supportive, urging her to see a therapist, doing all the housework.

But Centonze wanted a divorce.

"I can't explain it," she said. "I just snapped. I just lost control of everything."

He begged her to reconsider. They stayed together while relatives visited for Christmas in 1988, but separated after the New Year, Centonze said.

Blough went to stay with a friend in Georgia. He sent a card on her birthday.

Centonze enjoyed the freedom of single life for about a month. A girlfriend who had recently been divorced moved in and they spent evenings at bars and concerts. Then, Centonze withdrew. She had anxiety attacks, was scared to drive and spent nights by herself.

With therapy and medicine, she improved over time. She joined a Wednesday night church group. She worked a cash register at Publix.

She still saw doctors, though. Including her dentist. She had occasionally gotten cavities, but after the car accidents, she got 19 in roughly a year.

She kept seeing her dentist, trying to figure out what was wrong.

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Jodi Centonze met Michael Schiavo at a dentist's office, her brother said.

"Neither one of them was looking to meet anyone," John Centonze said. "And it wasn't something they just did. They weren't really together for a couple of years after they met."

Michael Schiavo had been an "emotional wreck" after his wife collapsed, he said in a 2000 trial.

Terri, the woman who had charmed him on first meeting, could no longer walk, eat or talk. She lay listless in a hospital bed, turned every two hours to avoid bedsores.

Schiavo was there for more than 130 doctor visits, through Terri's urinary tract infections, for the amputation of her left little toe, the removal of her gall bladder. He had been, a state judge noted, her most regular visitor.

Terri's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, agreed he was a devoted husband and encouraged him to date other women, according to court records and relatives.

"It was only a couple of weeks before Bob Schindler was saying Mike needed to get on with his life," said Schiavo's brother, Scott. "That was the farthest thing from Mike's mind."

But as months turned into years, Schiavo lost hope.

He decided to date about three years after Terri collapsed, Schiavo's lawyer said during the 2000 trial.

"It took Michael a long time to consider the prospect of getting on with his life _ something he was actively encouraged to do by the Schindlers, long before enmity tore them apart," Jay Wolfson, a former guardian of Terri, wrote in a 2003 report to Gov. Jeb Bush.

"He was even encouraged by the Schindlers to date, and introduced his in-law family to women he was dating," Wolfson wrote.

That was all before the Schiavos received about a $1-million malpractice verdict, stemming from the potassium imbalance that led to her current state. The award began a long-running feud with his in-laws over money and Terri's care.

The Schindlers began accusing their son-in-law of trying to kill Terri so he could keep the settlement money and marry his new girlfriend.

Schiavo said he didn't care about the money and offered to donate it to charity.

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Jodi Centonze was conflicted about whether to date Michael Schiavo, her brother said.

She wanted her oldest brother's opinion, and asked him to meet Schiavo for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Feather Sound. That was about 10 years ago, before most anyone knew of Terri Schiavo.

"I grilled Mike," John Centonze recalled. "I asked him all these questions: What's up, you're married? Why do you want to see my sister?"

Schiavo explained his wife was in a nursing home, and that she wouldn't want to live like that, John Centonze said. Schiavo said he had money from a lawsuit and was doing everything he could for Terri.

"I could see he was very uneasy, very scared," John Centonze said. "He had spent four to five years by himself. He seemed lonely and heartbroken."

Schiavo always made it clear he was still in love with Terri, relatives say.

"Mike still has a lot of emotions for Terri," John Centonze said. "People make him out to be this mean guy, and he's nothing like that at all."

Jodi Centonze knew what she was getting into, her brother said.

"From the beginning she knew the situation," her brother said. "He told her, if you have a problem with this, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to fulfill her wishes, and carry it out until the end.

"She's there for him 100 percent," Centonze's brother said.

Family members get angry when people accuse Schiavo of physically abusing Terri.

"If he was that way, my sister would have kicked him to the curb," John Centonze said. "She doesn't take crap from anyone. If Mike was that way, he could never be with my sister. She don't play."

It has been complicated, relatives say, but the family accepts and supports their relationship.

"Sometimes I feel as if it's almost a spiritual thing, like Terri sent Jodi to him," said Schiavo's brother, Scott.

Some relatives compare Michael Schiavo to a man who has lost his wife to Alzheimer's disease. He is devoted, but wants a companion.

"Life is lonely," said Gloria Centonze, Jodi's sister-in-law. "People need a reason to get up in the morning."

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Michael Schiavo's opponents have surrounded his home in recent weeks. They call him an adulterer. They say he promised to love his wife _ in sickness and in health _ and has betrayed her with another woman.

"Husband _ Protect Your Wife," read a sign held by a 28-year-old Idaho woman as she lingered outside his home last week. A dozen police officers stood guard out front as another officer and a police dog patrolled adjoining back yards.

The couple has installed a hightech infrared security system to keep watch over their ranch-style home, relatives say. They constantly worry about safety, and John Centonze stays with his sister when Schiavo has to leave.

Schiavo has called Jodi Centonze his "fiancee" for at least five years. It is not clear whether they will marry after Terri dies, relatives say. The couple does not talk openly about their future, relatives say.

But no one will be celebrating after Terri's death, they say.

"This is going to be crushing on all of us," Scott Schiavo said. "It's like losing that wonderful beautiful person all over again.

"Still," he said. "It's what she wanted."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Jamie Thompson can be reached at (727) 893-8455. Send e-mail to