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Signs point to double suicide of Largo mother and daughter under state care

Elizabeth Genthner, 47, and her daughter Simonne Say, 17, lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in Largo. They were found dead at their residence on Dec. 4.
Elizabeth Genthner, 47, and her daughter Simonne Say, 17, lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in Largo. They were found dead at their residence on Dec. 4.
Published Jan. 24, 2016

LARGO — Elizabeth Genthner and her daughter, Simonne Say, finally seemed happy.

They lived in a one-bedroom apartment with food in the pantry, family photos on the wall and a tank with pet turtles. They chatted with their social worker about going to the library and volunteering with cats at a local animal shelter. They were in good spirits when a relative saw them at Golden Corral for Thanksgiving dinner.

So it was a shock when Largo police officers found the pair dead Dec. 4 at their Gladys Street apartment after the caseworker called police to check on them. They were on the bedroom floor, each with gunshots to the mouth. Beside Genthner was a shotgun she had bought a week earlier from a Clearwater gun shop.

The signs point to a double suicide, according to police.

Records chronicle a troubled life for the mother and daughter. Genthner, 47, had a history of mental illness, drug-related arrests and alcohol abuse. Simonne, 17, stayed with family or in foster homes when it was determined her mother wasn't fit to care for her.

At the time of their deaths, they were enrolled in a program within the provider network of the Florida Department of Children and Families in which they interacted with several caseworkers, investigators and mental health professionals. Genthner was evaluated by at least five counselors who described her behavior as "highly manipulative of the providers, the case manager, and most importantly, her daughter," according to an investigative report.

"It would have been critical for all of the providers and the case manager to communicate to ensure they had the entire picture prior to making the decision to reunify Simonne with her mother," the report says.

Still, they were reunited in July. Genthner cried tears of joy when she found out, their caseworker told police.

"The whole system's broken," said Simonne's half-sister, Sarah Say, last week. Say had mostly lost touch with them but knew of Genthner's history of alcohol abuse and mental illness. "She should've never been able to buy a gun. She shouldn't even have gotten (Simonne) back."

• • •

Their caseworker described their apartment to police as one of the few good homes she visited. But the scene police found tells a different story.

There was the calendar with the days of November methodically crossed out through Simonne's birthday, Nov. 27, but no further. There were the notes, one from Simonne to her father, who died of an overdose when she was a toddler, and the other, written in Sharpie on the wall, that declared, "We are Mother/Daughter … make no mistake … this was suicide/suicide." There were the drawings of tombstones with names of the dead that came before them.

One had the name Robert, a lover of Genthner's who killed himself with a shotgun in the 1990s, according to police.

The other was Richard, the name of Simonne's biological father. In April 2001, Genthner and Simonne, 2 at the time, were living with Richard Say in a Pinellas Park motel room. During a fight over money, Say downed methadone in front of Genthner, according to the report. He was dead of an overdose by morning.

Police officers found marijuana in the room, within reach of the toddler. They arrested Genthner on child neglect and drug possession charges, and Simonne went to stay with her grandmother. Mother and daughter were reunited in January 2002.

Years passed quietly after that, aside from a DUI arrest for Genthner in 2004. But Genthner's brother, Paul, told police his sister never really got over the deaths of the men, and her mental health state worsened when their mother died in 2010. (He declined to comment for this story. Genthner's father, Ellsworth, could not be reached for comment.)

On Dec. 28, 2014, a neighbor called 911 to report Genthner was having a seizure. Simonne later told police her mother had taken a drug. She found her kneeling on the floor making incoherent noises. Officers took Genthner into custody under the Baker Act, believing she was a danger to herself or others. Simonne went into foster care.

At the apartment, investigators found three suicide notes from Genthner to her daughter, brother and father.

In Simonne's, she wrote of a pact "to live and die together" with the plan to drive into the Grand Canyon. She explained to her daughter why she broke that promise.

"The idea that I ever considered making a pact like that with my precious little girl is a reflection of my sickness," she wrote.

• • •

After the suicide attempt, Genthner, who worked at Dollar General, and Simonne, who was homeschooled by her mother, were under the care of caseworkers and counselors from Directions for Living. The organization is contracted by Eckerd Kids, which serves Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties on behalf of DCF, said Eckerd Kids spokeswoman Terri Durdaller.

Because Simonne died within a year of reported neglect, a team with representatives from DCF, law enforcement and community support organizations from other parts of Florida conducted a review of services provided to Simonne and her mother.

The report said Simonne's case was one of the first under a new system designed to provide the whole picture of a child's involvement with DCF rather than just snapshots of individual incidents.

But when a caseworker incorrectly filed a report in the statewide system, details related to the suicide pact were left out, as was information suggesting Genthner should have a psychological evaluation before determining which services should be provided to keep Simonne safe at home.

Genthner did undergo the evaluation, but the recommendations from it were not completed before she was reunited with her daughter, contributing to "an environment where the only contact the family had with professionals outside the home was during the case manager's visits," which occurred once a week in the first 90 days and once every two weeks after that, according to the report.

Outside those visits, the safety of a 17-year-old girl fell to a mother whose mental health state was muddled by inconsistencies reported by her counselors. For example, the evaluation from the substance abuse counselor, based only on self-reporting by Genthner, did not recommend treatment despite the fact that a psychological report determined she was most likely using alcohol to cope with her problems, according to the report.

When a reporter posed questions to DCF about the case, spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in a statement they should be directed to Eckerd Kids, adding that the department and its community partners "are deeply saddened by the loss of Simonne and her mother."

On behalf of Eckerd Kids and Directions for Living, Durdaller said she would not be able to address specifics until the case is closed.

In a statement, she said: "We take the job of protecting children and families seriously and will make necessary system changes to improve outcomes for those we serve."

• • •

The last contact Directions for Living had with Genthner and Simonne was Nov. 17, when the caseworker chatted with them about the library and the cats.

The next day, they went to Deer Hunter Guns together to buy the Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun. With no felony convictions, Genthner's background check cleared.

They went to pick it up Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, the day activity ceased on Genthner's cellphone, the last day marked off on the calendar.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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