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'I hate that I couldn't save her," mother says of slain daughter, as ex-Plant High player awaits trial

 
OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times Ari Jarosz, 26, left, consoles Kathleen Whiting at a candlelight vigil Aug. 20 in Tampa\u2019s Ballast Point Park held for her daughter, Brittany Collett, top. Collett was beaten to death while visiting Detroit. \uFEFF
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Ari Jarosz, 26, left, consoles Kathleen Whiting at a candlelight vigil Aug. 20 in Tampa\u2019s Ballast Point Park held for her daughter, Brittany Collett, top. Collett was beaten to death while visiting Detroit. \uFEFF
Published Sept. 2, 2018

TAMPA

Kathleen Whiting trudged through Ballast Point Park in the driving rain, clutching a black garbage bag to her chest. The few items inside, the jacket, hairbrush and purple towel, once belonged to her daughter, Brittany Marie Collett.

But now they belong to Whiting. They were the only tangible reminders of her daughter's 23 years of life before Collett was found beaten to death in the front yard of a Detroit home where she had met her new boyfriend's family for the first time.

Detroit police say it was the boyfriend, Tykese Keaton-Baldwin of Tampa, who dealt the fatal blows on Aug. 11. He was the star rusher of Plant High School's football team when he graduated in 2015. Now 20, he is being held in a Michigan jail on a charge of second-degree murder.

It took a few days for word of Collett's death to get back to her mother in Tampa, her aunts and uncles in New Port Richey and her childhood friends in Clearwater. She had told them all she was going on a vacation, and her co-workers at Buffalo Wild Wings in South Tampa didn't expect her to return to work until four days after her death. On Aug. 20, they huddled under a covered picnic bench at Ballast Point Park to light candles and mourn the loss of their bubbly, quick-witted friend.

But before Whiting could face the co-workers and friends at her daughter's vigil, she stepped out into the storm and carefully tucked the plastic bag beneath a dumpster.

"I've been down this road before," she said, sobbing. "I could see the signs, that something wasn't right and that something bad was going to happen, but I couldn't stop it. I couldn't get her away.

"This should have been me, not my daughter," she said. "My daughter had her whole life ahead of her, and he took it from her."

Collett and Keaton-Baldwin had only dated for nine months, but it was long enough for Collett to tell her mother and friends that she was in love. She was like that: impulsive, energetic and quick to fall in love, said Destini Craparo, who had also been close to Collett.

"She always wanted to see the good in everybody, even if there were red flags," Craparo said. "If she loved you, she loved you all the way, no matter what."

Collett wouldn't think twice of driving to Spring Hill to spend a weekend with her girlfriend — sometimes at breakneck speeds, Craparo said. The carefree impulsiveness had gotten her in trouble with law enforcement and had led to nights in the Pinellas County jail on traffic infractions and charges of marijuana possession.

She liked karaoke bars and dancing with friends in Ybor City nightclubs. Tattooed cheetah prints covered her shoulders and a bird sat in the small of her back. She paid friends to ink an anchor and infinity sign behind her ear; there were stars on her foot and a trail of paw prints down her right arm alongside the phrase, "Not all who wander are lost." On her left arm: "Time waits for no one."

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But as Collett grew older and became a mother, she also worked to gain control of her life, friends said. She called the Clearwater Police Department to report that her son Avery's father, McKinley Torbit Jr., had punched her in the face in January 2015. She sought a restraining order against him, and gave her son to the aunt and uncle in New Port Richey who were Collett's caretakers for most of her young life.

The following July, Torbit was shot to death in the courtyard of his Largo apartment complex in an apparent home invasion. Despite their problems, he was Collett's first love, her mother said. Collett told friends she needed to get back on track. She spent a year living with family in Texas and another year with family in Boston.

She had always been a good student, Whiting said, and she graduated from high school with two college scholarships. She dreamed of becoming a forensic pathologist and had taken classes at both St. Petersburg College and Austin Community College, but she could never stay away from her son for long.

In November 2016, she wrote on Facebook that she was leaving Texas and moving back to Clearwater.

"Honestly, I don't want to go back because I am doing so good with myself, but I get homesick a lot," the post said.

When she returned, she and her mother decided they needed a change of scenery and moved to a friend's house in South Tampa where they rented out a room. Collett's spirit seemed to brighten, friends said. She became more health conscious, and started taking nutritional supplements. She got a job at Buffalo Wild Wings with her close friend, Ari Jarosz, and finally settled the fines and other legal matters that hung over her newfound adulthood. She grew closer to her mother, who had previously been homeless, and the two women talked of getting their own apartment where she could raise Avery, now 3, together.

But then she met Keaton-Baldwin, her mother said, and within months Collett stopped returning phone calls and text messages, stopped hanging out with friends if her boyfriend wasn't invited, stopped smiling and laughing when he walked in to the restaurant where she worked.

"You had to really know her to know that something was wrong, that she was really hurting inside," Whiting said. "She just wanted to see the goodness in him, she didn't want to see the bad, and when she finally got up the courage to tell me things were bad it was too late."

Now Whiting is back to living on the streets, searching for shelter from the rain storms that have lingered since her daughter's death. Her grandson will grow up without his father or mother, and when Collett's body is sent back home it will be ashes in a temporary urn.

"I hate that I couldn't save her," Whiting said. "There are a lot of women out there who are crying out for help and people refuse to see what's right there in front of them.

"You need to step up to the plate and say something when you see something so these women don't end up like my daughter. She's gone, and we can't replace her."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.