TAMPA — One rainy night last October, a sheriff's deputy showed up at Art and Linda Pietscher's door in Michigan with news about their daughter in Florida.
Their dog Junior was barking, so Art Pietscher and the deputy went to the camper parked outside to talk. In the moment after the deputy told Pietscher that his 28-year-old daughter Laura was dead, Pietscher’s mind jumped to conclusions. Maybe it was a car wreck; Laura did like to drive fast.
Instead, the deputy said that detectives in Tampa suspected Laura was a victim of a homicide.
"That's when my knees literally buckled," Art Pietscher recalls. "It was like, ‘Who'd want to kill Laura?’"
For the next several months, the Pietschers waited for investigators to answer that and other questions. Last week, five months to the day Laura's body was found behind a dumpster at a Latin food market, police arrested 48-year-old Gary Tyrone Danielle and charged him with first degree murder.
A court document filed in the case after Danielle's arrest on Tuesday offers new details about Pietscher's murder and how the investigation unfolded. But some questions remain unanswered.
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Born in Livonia, Mich., and raised in nearby LaSalle, Laura Pietscher came to Florida in fall 2016 to care for her ailing grandmother, Bea.
She moved into her grandmother's tidy manufactured home in a neighborhood where the streets were named after states. Bea happened to live on Michigan Avenue. After she died in 2017, Laura stayed in the house.
After settling in Florida, Pietscher decided she wanted to become a correctional officer. She faced a challenge: She was born with a short left arm and only two fingers and thumb on that hand. While training at the academy, the instructor in the pump shotgun course told her she was wasting his time because she would never make it through his class, according to her father. But she learned to pump the gun with her right hand and pull the trigger with her left, and she passed.
"She was tenacious," Art Pietscher said. "When she made up her mind to do something, she did it."
Though she could handle the job physically, it took a mental toll and required a long commute to Arcadia, so she decided to quit last year, her father said. After that, she tended bar and worked at Ross Dress for Less as a sales associate. She seemed happy and content, her father said.
He last spoke to his daughter Oct. 16, a Tuesday, and everything seemed fine with her.
Three days later, an employee at the Comida Latina market at 3712 N 15th St. called 911 after finding a woman's body behind a dumpster, covered with a plastic bag and concealed by a discarded headboard, according to a motion prosecutors filed Wednesday asking a judge to hold Danielle without bail.
The woman was lying face down, her hands bound behind her back with a brown leather purse strap.
It was Laura. She'd been dead for at least a day, and an autopsy would later confirm she'd been strangled to death with something.
In a plastic bag in the dumpster, investigators found her purse, wallet, clothing and mail. Investigators learned that she owned a silver 2006 Toyota Tundra, and it wasn't parked at her house in Michigan Avenue.
The motion tells how a failed beer theft four days later would put police on Gary Danielle's trail.
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On Oct. 21, an employee at a WaWa convenience store on Hillsborough Avenue got the tag number of a suspect who drove away after trying to steal beer. It was Pietscher's Tundra.
Tampa police spotted the truck and a pursuit ensued, ending in a crash, according to the motion. Officers arrested a man named Calvin Gary. Gary told them the truck belonged to a short man he recently met nicknamed "Hot," who had shown up in the area in the last few days. Gary gave detectives information about where "Hot" might be found.
Another witness told investigators that a short guy from Sebring claimed he'd fled from police and crashed the truck. Detectives found Danielle hiding in some bushes — the motion doesn't say where — but did not arrest him.
Records show Danielle, who is about 4-foot-10, has been arrested more than a dozen times in Florida and has served time in state prison for robbery, battery and cocaine possession.
Investigators began to retrace the whereabouts of both Danielle and Pietscher in the days leading up to the discovery of her body. Detectives learned that Pietscher had been seen in a couple of bars in Sebring before her disappearance. At a restaurant Pietscher frequented near her home, the Wild Hawg, they discovered surveillance footage from Oct. 16 showing her wearing the same strapless dress she had on when her body was found.
Another witness told investigators that Danielle and Pietscher had been seen together in a part of Sebring known as the Block, though the witness couldn't say exactly when. A friend of Piestcher's said they'd made plans to have dinner on Oct. 18 but she never showed up
Among her belongings in the dumpster, investigators found a receipt for an ATM at a Circle K in Lakeland, near where a tag reader had captured Pietscher's truck on Oct. 17, according to the motion. Detectives obtained store surveillance showing Danielle driving up in the Toyota pickup, apparently alone, entering the store and then leaving.
By Oct. 29, investigators had confirmed Danielle's fingerprints were found on the bag covering Pietscher's body, on the bag containing her belongings, and on her truck, the motion says.
In an interview with detectives that day, Danielle told detectives he was homeless and had found the Toyota Tundra with the keys inside and took it, using it for beer runs. He was shown photos of Pietscher's body, the dumpster, the bag containing her belongings. They also showed him photos of Pietscher taken before her death. He said he didn't recognize any of it.
Detective Rachel Cholnik finally asked the question: Pietscher was alive with you in Sebring, so how do you both wind up in Tampa, but she's now dead?
At that point, Danielle ended the interview. Detectives apparently weren't ready to arrest him yet.
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About a month after the body was found, Art and Linda Pietscher created a Facebook page called Laura's Army. It was a place to memorialize her life and keep family friends updated on the hunt for her killer.
There are photos of Laura over the course of her life: Working as a job coach for Goodwill in Monroe, Mich. Smiling as she held her newborn nephew. Jumping into a near freezing pond — wearing floaties on her arm because she couldn't swim — during a fundraiser for the Special Olympics.
There are photos from the day after her funeral, when the family scattered her ashes in the Peace River at the same spot where she had helped scatter her grandmother's cremains.
"Certainly we figured Laura would be spreading some of our ashes and not us spreading hers," the post read.
The parents marked painful occasions without their daughter: Thanksgiving, her birthday and then, five days later, Christmas.
The Pietschers posted a Crime Stoppers flyer with Laura's photo, and spent time in Florida handing out printed copies, traveling back and forth from Sebring to Tampa. They donated $2,000 to Crime Stoppers to up the reward to $5,000.
The case against Danielle grew stronger as lab results came back. His DNA was found under Pietscher's fingernails, on the strap that bound her hands and a blood-stained shirt found in the back of her truck.
On Valentine's Day, a grand jury indicted Danielle on a first degree murder charge and an arrest warrant was issued. Art Pietscher shared the news on Facebook, posting Danielle's prison mugshot on the Facebook page.
On Tuesday, Danielle was arrested in an apartment on East Hillsborough Avenue. Police have not released details about who lived there.
Art Pietscher said detectives haven't indicated what Danielle's motive might have been. It's also unclear exactly when Laura was killed or why they were together in the first place.
Maybe that will come out as Danielle's case works its way through court. For now, the Pietschers are thankful for the work of the investigators on the case and glad this part of their story is over.
"This is something no parent should ever have to go through," the father said.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.