BRADENTON — In the darkness of the early morning, Bud Moriarty shakes sleep from his eyes and shuffles past the tiny urn atop his bedroom dresser.
In another room, he pours his thoughts into a computer keyboard, hammering out letters to lawyers, detectives, members of Congress, reporters — anyone who will listen. He saves copies in a pair of bulging folders that he labels his "case file."
"For three years I've been consumed with this," he says. "I get obsessed."
The obsession is his daughter, Kelly Moriarty. Three years ago, she vanished from Plant City, along with her girlfriend, Doris "Pat" Carter.
Bud Moriarty thinks he knows what happened to her. And who is responsible. In his daily letters and phone calls, he isn't shy about sharing his thoughts, and his frustrations with law enforcement for her case being unresolved.
He might be right. Or he might not be. In fact, the only part of the story that is certain is where it ends: on a beach in St. Petersburg where his daughter's severed leg washed ashore.
• • •
It was Dec. 27, 2011. A group of Canadian tourists strolling behind a home near the Bay Vista Recreation Center in south St. Petersburg spotted the limb among a strip of sand and rocks. The find sparked what would evolve into a massive investigation, spanning three police jurisdictions.
It began with St. Petersburg police, who estimated the leg was in the water about two or three days. There were few other clues. Searches of Tampa Bay turned up no other body parts.
Weeks later, a break came when the Moriartys went to Bradenton police to report her missing. They hadn't heard from her since early December, and she hadn't shown on Christmas. Calls to her cellphone went unanswered.
It would not have been out of character for Kelly, 38, to skip a family gathering. She guarded her privacy and cherished her independence. But when the phone line was cut off in January, they knew something was wrong.
Bradenton police found Kelly's black Cadillac in an impound lot. It was ticketed as abandoned in late December along a rural stretch of State Road 62 in Manatee County. In her Bradenton apartment, presents lay unopened beneath a Christmas tree.
She was last seen in mid December with Carter, the widow of a retired Hillsborough sheriff's deputy, who lived on a multiacre property in Plant City. The couple had dated for about a year. Neither woman had been seen since about Dec. 16.
Authorities took DNA samples from both families. They tested the samples against DNA from the leg. In March, they got the results: it matched Kelly.
• • •
Talk to Bud Moriarty and he is quick to criticize the people tasked with investigating what can only be presumed to be his daughter's murder. In 36 months, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has assembled a seven-volume investigative file, done numerous searches, and retrieved countless items of evidence. But no one has been charged.
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Responding to Bud Moriarty's demands for answers, they have shared some of their findings. The bulk of the investigation, sheriff's officials say, has focused on Stacy and Anthony Muralt, Carter's daughter and son-in-law.
Muralt and her husband, Anthony, had moved in with Carter in 2009, after losing their home in a foreclosure. In October 2011, Carter filed a request in Hillsborough court to have the Muralts evicted from her property, citing "an extended length of time undesirable to myself that these individuals have been occupying my residence."
On Dec. 15, a judge ordered the Muralts to vacate the property. Moriarty and Carter disappeared soon thereafter.
When detectives tried to probe the Muralts about the eviction and their relationship with Carter, both invoked their right to an attorney, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Major Robert Ura.
"The Muralts are not cooperating in this investigation and haven't for some time," said Ura. "The lack of cooperating has not helped us. … I don't think I'm quite there to name them as suspects. But certainly, they haven't helped."
Detectives have since put an intense focus on the Muralts and their activities around the time Carter and Moriarty vanished. Certain findings have raised more questions.
Among them: In the days after Carter and Moriarty were last seen, Stacy Muralt's cellphone recorded a series of pings off cell towers in South Tampa and St. Petersburg, in the vicinity of the Gandy Bridge, Ura said. And, in late December, surveillance video from Carter's bank showed Muralt accessing her mother's safe deposit box. After that, authorities froze Carter's financial assets.
In a recent phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Muralt denied she has been uncooperative with investigators. Her reluctance to talk without an attorney is born of a desire to protect her mother, she said.
"It's not a matter of me trying to avoid anything," she said. "I'm the only person that's ever had her best interests at heart."
Muralt twice gave consent to allow investigators to search the property where she still lives. Forensic technicians spent hours combing her house, spraying luminol to look for signs of blood, using tape to lift up fibers.
In both searches, investigators retrieved bags full of evidence, some of which, Ura said, is still undergoing forensic testing.
Muralt has her own theories about what happened, but declined to share specifics, other than to say she thinks it was drug-related. She said Carter's efforts to force her to move out were the work of Kelly Moriarty, whom she accused of exploiting her mother in an effort to gain control of her financial assets.
"I know 100 percent that I was not involved in this," she said. "There is so much more to this than anyone understands.
"I know I love (my mother). And I know it's my place to protect her."
• • •
In meetings with the Moriarty family, sheriff's officials have tried to reassure them that they know what they're doing. These things, they say, just take time.
"I think TV shows like CSI and Law & Order, where things get wrapped up and prosecuted within an hour, can lead to some public frustration with a case like this," Ura said. "But I'm willing to wait and make sure we've investigated this case to the fullest extent, whether we can make an arrest tomorrow or if it takes a year, or two, or three."
That means little to Bud Moriarty. So he writes more letters and makes more phone calls, hoping to nudge someone in authority to take action.
"My daughter was murdered and butchered," he said. "Sometimes they say times heals, but it doesn't. Not when you lose a child."
The ashes of Kelly's leg sit in an urn atop her parents' bedroom dresser. A photo of her sits next to it, along with two white rocks, plucked from the beach where her leg was found, bearing etched text.
12/27/12 - 1 Yr, one reads. 12/27/13 - 2 Yrs.
This year, once again, they will return and find another rock.
12/27/14 - 3 Years.
Contact Dan Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.