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The boy next door

She was the neighborhood recluse who posted "No Trespassing" signs on palm trees and built a wall of sand in her front yard to discourage intruders.

He was the teenager whom neighborhood parents warned their kids about, the one arrested for marijuana possession whose family had numerous run-ins with the law.

Still, Jennie Dianne Hartley, 47, trusted the boy next door, Blake Carter Stryker, 17. She used to babysit him, and when her golden retriever, Cody, died June 5 - her birthday - she asked him to bury the beloved pet.

But five days later, police say, Stryker stabbed her 50 times and left her body in a heap just inside her front door, her bloody nightgown torn to pieces.

Now one of the few people she trusted is accused of murdering her.

"It's an irony I still don't have my mind around," her brother, Roy Hartley, said Thursday.

Stryker's father, Bruce, said his son told him Hartley pulled a knife on him first. He called his son "the real victim" and said he stabbed Hartley so many times because he went into a "psychotic blackout."

"He's not a violent kid," he said.

Police said Thursday they have found no evidence to corroborate the father's story. But they also haven't established a motive.

"We may never be able to pin it down," said Detective Rick Shaw. "Only he knows for sure and only she knows for sure."

Residents of the quiet Azalea neighborhood called the Stryker home troubled.

Police went to the house at 1218 74th St. N five times in 2004, including once to make an arrest, records show.

"It's kind of known in the neighborhood that they were the kids you wouldn't want your kids hanging out with," said Sanford Luska, 54, a neighbor.

Bruce Stryker, 45, has a criminal record that includes arrests for grand theft, drunken driving, cocaine possession and spousal battery.

One month after giving birth to Blake in 1988, his second wife, Jacqueline, was arrested for grand theft auto. She died in 1997 at 33 of chronic alcoholism, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, three years after she and Bruce Stryker divorced.

Blake, the oldest of two sons, was 9 when his mom died. He turns 18 on July 20.

Now a senior at Boca Ciega High School, he was described by a few neighbors and a former football coach as a loner.

"The kids would be grouped together on the sidelines, and Blake would be on the other end," said Frank Chenis, former head coach of Azalea Bulldogs Youth Football.

Though Blake was sometimes disobedient, he mostly did what he was told, Chenis said. But unlike his teammates, he had little support from his family.

"The father was always smelling like alcohol," he said. "He was difficult."

By the time Hartley moved into the small blue house at 1226 74th St. N around 1996, she was already wounded from two failed marriages. She couldn't work because of back pain from a car accident when she was 19. Her parents bought the house for her.

She lived alone and didn't leave her house except to work in the garden or visit family. She liked watching Catholic Mass on television.

She didn't even leave windows open because she thought it might encourage intruders, neighbors said.

"She had her fears," said Alethea Pike, 83, who dog-sat for her. "She wanted to keep her home secure."

When Hartley mistakenly received sand instead of topsoil from a construction project several years ago, she had it fashioned into a small wall around her front yard.

Bruce Stryker said he hadn't spoken much to Hartley since she last babysat for his two boys about eight years ago.

But when her dog died June 5, Hartley turned to Blake Stryker, said her brother, Roy. Stryker buried him in her back yard.

Late Friday night or early Saturday morning, police said, Stryker slipped out his bedroom window to visit a friend.

He told police he saw Hartley outside her house on his way home about 3:30 a.m. and went inside to use her bathroom.

What happened next is unclear.

Stryker's father said Hartley pulled a knife, which his son wrested away and used to stab her while defending himself.

Police said they have found no evidence to support that account. They also said they found no signs of forced entry or any evidence that Hartley was sexually assaulted.

Hartley's mother discovered her bloody body Monday evening.

Two days later, police say, Stryker confessed to them that he killed Hartley and threw the knife into Boca Ciega Bay.

He was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder.

Police searched for the knife but had not found it by Thursday night.

Stryker's father said Thursday that before police questioned the two of them his son told him he killed Hartley. During police questioning, the teen admitted the crime.

The father says he runs a successful Internet retail business and plans to hire a lawyer to defend his son.

Hartley's family is arranging her funeral. It will be held 1 p.m. Monday at St. Jude's Cathedral.

Roy Hartley said they're still searching for answers: "There are so many questions that we have."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Robert Farley contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at (727) 893-8472