TAMPA — She loved Starburst gummies and false eyelashes, animals, her family and practical jokes.
Alisha Joanna Windfield lived to be 35, but those who knew her said she seemed born with the empathy and optimism of a woman well beyond her years. She was smart and driven, but never took herself too seriously.
With three sisters and now three children of her own, Windfield was an adept peacemaker known for turning tears into laughter. And perhaps her most endearing trait, her family said: She never met a stranger.
“The gift of being emotionally expressive and outwardly affectionate made Alisha very easy to approach,” they wrote in her obituary.
It was her friendly, sunny disposition that matched her well to her job as a security guard at the Beachwalk Condominiums complex in Town n’ Country — a position she had held since 2013.
It was the job that appears to have put her in contact with whoever took her life.
Windfield was killed sometime between the end of her shift June 8 and the following evening, when her remains were discovered 20 miles away, burning in a woods fire near the southbound rest stop of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
No one has been arrested for Windfield’s death. A man who lived in Beachwalk, Fred Williams, 55, set fire to her body and faces a charge of tampering with physical evidence, the Sheriff’s Office said. The Medical Examiner’s Office would not release a cause of death because the investigation is still under way.
On the night she disappeared, Windfield finished her shift just before midnight and called Ryan Capel, her husband and partner of 15 years, just as he was putting put their youngest daughter to sleep. She told him she was on her way home, but after she hung up the phone, she got an idea.
She swung her black, 2007 Volkswagen Passat around and parked in front of building 4333 at Beachwalk to speak with a resident who had two kittens in need of new homes. It’s the same building where Williams lived.
Alisha’s family already had two dogs — a miniature mutt named Pinky she had for years and a bigger dog, Hazel, she brought home just a few months earlier. But she was impulsive and precocious, her sisters said, and loved nothing more than finding ways to surprise her children into a smile.
Alisha left without the kittens. She never made it home.
When Capel woke the next morning, Windfield wasn’t there. He called her sisters and father, and as the clock neared 7 p.m., the family all drove to the Beachwalk complex and found Windfield’s car in the parking lot. Her wallet was still inside.
Less than half an hour later, as sheriff’s deputies began their investigation into Windfield’s disappearance, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue crews were called to a report of a fire near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Four minutes later, firefighters requested backup from St. Petersburg Police, records show. They had discovered a body.
“My world changed overnight, from the time I went to sleep to the time I woke up,” Capel said.
“Now, I can’t sleep for nothing. I just sit up at night trying to figure out why it had to be her because she didn’t bother nobody. All she wanted to do in life was go to her job and make people happy and come home to be with our kids and make them happy.”
Windfield’s children are holding the family together, her sisters said – 9-year-old Christopher Joseph, 8-year-old Kayla Rose, and 4-year-old Ariana Victoria. The grown-ups worry about the day Ariana begins to realize her mother won’t be coming back.
For Kayla Rose, the loss is beginning to sink in. Yet despite her grief, the 8-year-old managed to deliver a stirring tribute at her mother’s funeral — a testament to the confidence and determination Alisha instilled in her children.
“Today I miss my mom, and I know all of you miss her,” Kayla said. “She was beautiful inside and outside. She was smart. She worked hard in her job. And she’s in heaven now. If you miss her that’s okay. We all miss her inside our hearts because she’s inside our hearts.”
Capel worries he won’t be able to fill the hole his charismatic wife leaves in his children’s lives. Alisha knew how to be a parent and a playmate at the same time. She could help the kids with homework but also dance and sing and be silly. She knew how to turn chores into games full of laughter.
He knows her sisters and friends will keep her stories alive. Like the time when they were girls and a boy picked on Alisha’s younger sister Robin. Alisha found him on the playground and pinned him down so Robin could take a swing. Or the time Alisha casually scooped all the fish from the fish tank and hid them. Or when she and Robin fed a packet of salt to the family cat to see what would happen.
But it will take time, Capel said, lots of time for the pain to subside.
“Some people want to know the hardest part,” he said. “It’s waking up and she’s not there, every single morning.”