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Tampa girl, 8, is witness in father’s dismemberment murder case. Family wants her home.

Robert Kessler, 69, was arrested in connection with the murder of a woman found in McKay Bay. His daughter, 8, has been with the Department of Children and Families since. Her family wants her to come home.
Robert Kessler, 69, left, is accused of killing Stephanie Crone-Overholts, right, and dumping her body parts into Tampa Bay.
Robert Kessler, 69, left, is accused of killing Stephanie Crone-Overholts, right, and dumping her body parts into Tampa Bay. [ Tampa Police Department ]
Published Dec. 1, 2021|Updated Dec. 1, 2021

An 8-year-old girl is a witness in the gruesome death of a woman whose dismembered body was found in Tampa’s McKay Bay. Her father, Robert Kessler, is charged in the homicide. The girl’s family hasn’t seen her since.

The child, whom the Tampa Bay Times is not naming because of her age, has been in the custody of the Department of Children and Families since her father’s arrest on Nov. 24, according to her maternal grandparents, Michael and Beth Gray. The girl’s mother, April Thompson, 34, died in September of an accidental drug overdose, they said.

Sarah Gray, Thompson’s sister and the 8-year-old’s aunt, said they didn’t get a clear answer on where her niece was until Monday. They’d been searching for answers since Kessler’s arrest. The Gray family is hoping to gain custody of the girl.

Robert Kessler previously had full custody of the girl and Thompson had visitation rights.

“It’s very upsetting that we had to wait so long to get an answer after, you know, having to run around town and constantly make phone calls just to know she was safe,” Sarah Gray said.

The Department of Children and Families acknowledged a request from the Tampa Bay Times asking for further information on the girl’s placement, but has not commented further. The girl’s family said they are unaware of any legal proceedings surrounding the girl.

Tampa police interviewed the girl on Nov. 15. She told police that Stephanie Crone-Overholts, the woman whose dismembered body was found in McKay Bay, had stayed with her and her father for about a week. Crone-Overholts was staying in the girl’s bedroom, according to an arrest report.

The girl told police that Crone-Overholts called her father multiple times on Nov. 5 during her gymnastics practice. She later heard the two arguing at their house. Kessler told the girl to go to sleep. The next day, the 8-year-old said her father told her that Crone-Overholts was picked up by a boyfriend, whom she’d never seen.

This contradicted Kessler’s previous statement to police that he hadn’t seen Crone-Overholts on the night of Nov. 5, the report said.

The girl told police that Crone-Overholts’ car was still at the house and that her father took the vehicle to Crone-Overholts on Nov. 7. She said she saw her father put some of the woman’s belongings in the car, and more of her things in the trash.

The room where Crone-Overholts was staying also smelled bad, the girl told police. She said her father planned to redecorate. Detectives later found evidence of blood and DNA matching Crone-Overholts in that room and throughout the house.

The ordeal came just two months after Thompson, the girl’s mother, died.

“She needs family support, and just all the love she can get,” Sarah Gray said. “That’s why we feel like we’re missing out even more.”

Michael Gray said Thompson was doing better in the months before her death. In previous years, Thompson had been arrested a number of times for drug possession. He said she was on a mission to be reunited with her daughter. Thompson had goals, he said. She was looking into taking college classes, and she had gotten her driver’s license back.

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Hillsborough County court records detail a tumultuous relationship between Kessler and Thompson, along with her family. Thompson’s family previously filed stalking injunctions against Kessler. Kessler has done the same against Thompson.

When the girl was younger, she was placed with her grandparents after Thompson and Kessler had a domestic dispute. It’s the most amount of time the family has spent with the girl. It was when they learned her favorite shows were Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol.

Sarah Gray, whom the girl calls “TiTi,” would take her to the park, the girl’s favorite place, she said.

She loves sweets, Michael Gray said. Whenever she’d come by, she’d say, “Tell papa to get my Skittles.”

In the months since Thompson’s death, the Gray family has seen the girl a few times. Kessler brought her over to visit at the grandparents’ request. Michael Gray said the girl has never seemed afraid of Kessler. She’s always gone to him, he said.

Sarah Gray described Kessler as an erratic person. He has called her disparaging names and cussed at her, and she has felt threatened by him before. Around the time the child was staying with Sarah Gray’s family, Kessler sent her harassing and threatening messages over social media and over the phone. He has even shown up to her job.

Kessler told Sarah Gray he’d “cut her up like a hog,” Michael Gray said.

“I just don’t want my niece to go back to this individual, if he were to be free at any point,” Sarah Gray said. “We just want her to be safe, and to come home and be with family.”

Hillsborough Judge Catherine Catlin on Wednesday granted the State Attorney’s Office’s motion asking that Kessler be held without bail until trial.

“I believe that there is a complete disregard for the safety of our community,” Catlin said. “This was a heinous act where his child resides, in fact in his child’s bedroom.”

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