BRANDON — Hundreds of family and friends filled the Bell Shoals Baptist Church Tuesday morning to honor a life cut short too soon.
But Ted Fraley stood at the podium and offered an alternative takeaway to the sorrow and grief experienced by those who came to pay respects to his niece. A mother of four named Samantha Keithley, her life was ended Sept. 24. That's when her husband, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputy Kirk Keithley, shot her and then turned the gun on himself.
Fraley urged the gathered not to focus on the negative, but to follow the example set by his vivacious niece.
"Live your life," Fraley said. "If you want to honor Sam, live your life to the fullest. You've got one shot at life. Take it. Sam's life was stolen from her. Life your life. Live your dreams."
Samantha Keithley, 33, grew up in Brandon, took care of her family after her mom died when she was 16 and graduated from Bloomingdale High School in 2003. She worked for a decade at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where she had recently been promoted into a management position.
She had also studied nursing and was working as a real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty in Lakeland. She married Kirk Keithley, 39, in 2012. Together they had a blended family of four children.
At the church, Fraley talked about a previous family gathering there. It was 17 years ago and they had come to mourn Samantha Keithley's mother, who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Keithley had just gotten her license.
"She'd already had two 'fender benders,'" Fraley said with a smile of fond memory. "So in spite of what you may have heard she wasn't perfect. But she was wonderful. You've all heard she's beautiful, but that's superficial and doesn't even begin to describe her. She was kind, thoughtful, loving, considerate, compassionate and just plain fun."
She was also an inspiration.
"I was in an awful relationship," said Rose Sanabria. "Sam was a loving person listening to my horrible night that happened with that man. He put me in a wheelchair for three months. Sam used to tell me, 'Rose, you are better than that. So many people love you. You are not alone. You need to get out. I don't ever want to wake up one morning and read up on you."
Sanabria sighed at the irony and said Keithley helped give her the strength to get out before it was too late.
"I know she didn't have that chance, because of a cowardly act that caught her off-guard," Sanabria said. "But what she has done is left her legacy on earth of love, courage and faith. She brought me closer to God and she has given me the opportunity to touch other women in their lives."
Kristin Kellin, one of her best friends since growing up in Brandon, recalled that Keithley "lit up a room when she walked in. She was electric, stunningly beautiful and exactly what her uncle said, she was fun and we had some crazy, amazing fun times together."
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But she was also a great mother, said Kellin.
"Please keep her children in your thoughts and prayers," she said, "because that's really what she would want."
As friends and family celebrated Samantha Keithley, 1,200 miles to the west her husband's family held a memorial for him in his birthplace of Peoria, Illinois.
An obituary in his hometown Peoria Star Journal didn't say what happened, only that he was "pre-deceased" by his wife.
In Brandon, another of Samantha Keithley's uncles offered his thoughts on the man who took his niece's life.
"Some people might be taken aback by what I am about to say," said Travis Fraley during his turn at the podium. "Kirk was a coward. He stole Samantha from us and I hope he rots in hell."
Even amid the devastation, Ted Fraley began his eulogy by asking mourners to look past the tragedy.
"When you tell this story, and we want you to tell it, don't boil it down to her last few minutes," said Fraley. "That's not what her life was about and had nothing to do with her. To do so would be skipping over the 18 million other minutes — 33 years of an incredible story with highs, lows, joys and sadness, love and most importantly, her children."
Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman