Family says woman found dead in lake was more than a victim

Published July 6, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Stacia Kay Berman was the teenage girl who never minded playing Parcheesi and Monopoly with a brother and sister who were a decade younger.

She was a lover of words and books, a poet who penned thoughtful lines about being in a room with a view of a sea that looks like forever.

She was a bright and vivacious young women who made it as a real estate agent in South Florida and then became a broker in New York City.

To friends and family, Berman was more than a murder victim, more than a drug addict whose tortured body was found in St. Petersburg's Lake Maggiore.

She was those things, too, as became clear in a trial in June. Letrell McKnight and Santonio Smith were convicted of murdering Berman, 42, purportedly because Smith believed she had stolen shoes he planned to give his kids for Christmas. A third man is awaiting trial.

But for people who knew Berman, the descriptions of her death ignore who she was for most of her life.

"My daughter was bright, she was generous, she was loving, she was fun, she was so much fun," said her mother Andrea Silverthorne. "And through the whole descent into this vicious criminal world, it was very difficult, and I never gave up on her because my Stacia was still inside the new Stacia.

"But never, never in my imagination did I imagine how it would end."

Berman grew up in the Miami area. She enjoyed English classes and did well in school. But in sixth grade she suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle accident and afterward had headaches and trouble concentrating.

Berman's mother and father divorced, her father remarried, and eventually Berman gained a younger brother and sister.

"She was a wonderful older sister, played with them in a pool, sang to them, made up games," said her stepmother Kelly Charters.

Berman attended Coral Gables High School and got a GED. She worked in nightclubs in South Beach, but her mother worried about that scene. She knew her daughter had dabbled in drugs.

A successful South Florida real estate broker, Silverthorne helped her daughter study for her real estate license. She beamed when Berman moved to New York City in the 1990s and became a real estate broker.

"That was like her Camelot time for six or seven years," Silverthorne said.

Berman cared deeply for animals, for the environment, for people affected by war, for many things. She suffered "not just her own wounds, but everyone else's wounds," as Silverthorne put it.

Sometimes, it was hard for her to stop worrying. "I think some of these things would keep her up at night," Charters said.

Then, in 2001, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. "It just put her over," Charters said.

That week, a Washington Post reporter found Berman attending services at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

She seemed almost a church statue in full regalia. She wore an American flag bandanna in her hair, a flag pin on her black trench coat, a cross around her neck. She began to talk about the unspeakable tragedy, and could not stop. She shuddered, her teeth chattering. Her brown eyes were red.

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"It always takes something like this for us to pay attention to humanity, to politics, to religion," she said. "People I know could've died, and I may just not know it yet."

Berman was not only suffering from depression brought on by the attacks but also a collapsing real estate market. Silverthorne brought her back to Florida and put her to work in her business.

Berman's good friend Pelli Llewellyn discovered Berman was using crack cocaine, a change from previous casual partying. It scared Llewellyn. After some soul-searching, she alerted Berman's mother.

Silverthorne got her into rehab more than once, including a stint in St. Petersburg.

But Berman kept using and began getting arrested. At one point, she confided what her mother had suspected: She turned to prostitution for more cocaine.

"It was a brutal thing to watch this middle-class child descend into this hard-core drug world," Silverthorne said.

And harder still when police told her what had happened in St. Petersburg on Christmas Eve 2011: Berman came to an apartment at 527 Eighth St. N for cocaine. Smith thought she had stolen some shoes. Smith, McKnight and another man were accused of torturing her, killing her and dropping her in Lake Maggiore.

Silverthorne appreciates the prosecutors who got McKnight and Smith convicted and sentenced to life, but she doubts parts of the official story. She believes the murder was about more than shoes and that more people were involved. She said her daughter had previously been found with a couple of $1,000 Walmart gift cards, indicating she may have been used as a drug courier.

"It wasn't about shoes," Silverthorne said. "It was about money."

The convictions were welcomed by those who loved Berman. Still, says Charters: "I don't think more than 12 hours can go by without my thinking of her and what they did to her."