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Letter provides details in murder-suicide of former USF professor, 3-year-old daughter

A typed letter found in the condo of Ayhan Aytes talked about child custody issues he had with his wife, Laurel Friedman, shown here with the couple’s daughter Ela. Police say Aytes killed Ela and then himself in early December. [Courtesy of Laura Davis]
Published Jan. 2

TAMPA — As Ayhan Aytes hung from a rafter on his back porch and his 3-year-old daughter lay dead in her bed, investigators found a letter offering details in what led up to the murder-suicide.

It was Dec. 10, and Temple Terrace police had arrived at Aytes' first floor condo to check on the 48-year-old former University of South Florida professor and his daughter. Aytes' estranged wife, Laurel Friedman, hadn't heard from them in four days.

The seven-page letter, typed and addressed to no one in particular, was dated Dec. 6. It talked about "separation, divorce and child custody matters between Laurel and Ayhan," according to a newly released court document in the case.

The last line, just before Aytes' typed name, said: "I cannot imagine a life for myself and Ela to go through this nonsense for the rest of our lives."

An investigation is ongoing, but an affidavit filed by Temple Terrace police to secure a search warrant for Aytes' security camera offers new details about what else investigators found in Aytes' condo that day.

• • •

The estranged couple had been involved in an increasingly bitter battle over Ela.

Friedman, an instructor in USF's College of Communication, filed for divorce in January and the couple agreed to share custody of the girl. Aytes had worked three semesters as visiting professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. His last contract expired in May.

RELATED: Former USF professor who killed 3-year-old daughter had refused to return her to mother, records show

In September, a judge granted Friedman's request to forbid Aytes, a Turkish citizen with a green card, from taking Ela to Turkey to visit his family. Friedman was worried he would take the girl and not return.

Aytes denied in a response that he planned to stay in Turkey and said he only wanted to take his daughter to visit his mother, but the court agreed Aytes was an abduction risk. In November, a judge ratified the parenting plan and ordered each side to abide by it.

Aytes didn't bring Ela to school on Dec. 5, according to the emergency motion Friedman filed the same day. The motion said Aytes' mental health was declining and his behavior was becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Friedman sent Aytes a text message noting it was her turn to have Ela and asked for a meeting immediately so she could pick up the girl. Aytes responded in a text telling her not to "push it too hard" and saying she owed him for previously keeping Ela during his time.

Friedman's attorney sent an email to Aytes' attorney Blair Chan, who replied that Aytes had spoken to a child protection investigator because, Aytes claimed, Ela said she had been touched inappropriately by Friedman's "paramour." Chan wrote that Aytes had decided to keep Ela "until a decision is made regarding whether a dependency matter will be opened."

However, court records show a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office child protection investigator who was investigating the abuse claim never told Aytes to withhold Ela from her mother. Friedman's motion said the abuse allegation was fabricated and asked a judge issue an order allowing Friedman to pick up the girl immediately.

Instead of an emergency pickup order, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Wesley Tibbals issued a directive for Aytes to immediately abide by the parenting plan.

Friedman last spoke to Aytes, by phone, on Dec. 6., according to the search warrant affidavit. She called police about 4 p.m. on Dec. 10, and officers went to Aytes' condo at 11859 Skylake Place.

No one answered the front door, so they went to the back of the building.

They found the father first.

• • •

Aytes was hanging from a rafter inside the screened patio, just a few inches from the ground, a thin green rope around his neck and a plastic bag on his head, the affidavit says. He was dressed in a black suit and dress shoes. His body faced a framed photo, sitting on a table, of himself and a girl who appeared to be Ela.

They found Ela in a front bedroom. She was wearing a pajama shirt and lying on her back in bed, the covers pulled close to her neck and her arms extended so her hands were lying near her head, palms facing up.

In and near her left hand were a small stuffed animal and a small stuffed crescent moon. In her right hand was a piece of paper bearing a picture of unicorns. The affidavit does not mention any signs of trauma on her body. There were signs of decomposition.

Just inside the rear sliding glass door, investigators found the typed letter and a computer on a desk. The computer was on and Ayte's email inbox was visible. The last email that had been opened was sent Dec. 6 from a Blair Chan, the affidavit says, the name of Aytes' attorney.

A portion of Chan's email that was visible said: "Case Status - As a follow up to our call this morning. I encourage you to comply with Temporary order and exchange the child with mother today... ."

A preliminary review by the Medical Examiner ruled Ela's death a homicide and her father's a suicide. Final autopsy reports were still pending. Investigators sought the search warrant to retrieve data from a surveillance camera near the condo's front door.

Contacted by the Times about the search warrant, Laurel Friedman released a statement Monday.

"These events are painful to recount, but it is tremendously important to make clear that my daughter Ela was failed by multiple entities that had responsibility for protecting her," Friedman said. "I sought help from people in positions of authority over the course of several days, repeatedly voicing escalating concern for Ela's safety."

The statement said Friedman visited the Temple Terrace Police Department on Dec. 5 and asked for a police escort to pick up Ela because she feared for her safety if she went her Aytes' apartment alone. Instead, she said, an officer contacted Aytes and reported that he said everything was fine.

Friedman also noted Tibbals refused to order police to pick up Ela despite the motion citing Aytes' erratic behavior, declining mental health and Friedman's fears for Ela's immediate safety.

What's more, Friedman said, she had in-person, email and telephone communications with child protective investigators to convey her escalating fears.

"Ela was a kind, empathic, and bright child who should be alive today," the statement concludes.

"My family and I are deeply grieving this devastating loss. When I am able, I will join my voice and energy to discussions of domestic violence and systemic failures to protect vulnerable children."

Tibbals declined to comment Monday, saying it wouldn't be appropriate under the state's code of judicial conduct. The The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which conducts child protection investigations in the county, did not immediately have a comment.

The Temple Terrace Police Department, in a statement to the Times, did not address Friedman's complaints directly but offered "heartfelt condolences" to her and her family and said it strives "to protect and serve each of our citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable, within the confines of our legal system."

If you need help: Anyone having thoughts of suicide can find support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, (800) 273-8255.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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