ST. PETERSBURG — Joel Leasure loved working in the yard of the bright yellow bungalow he and his husband called home for some four decades.
The shaded, neatly edged beds of ferns and palms in the front yard helped the house on the corner of 48th Street North and 12th Avenue earn a reputation as one of the best-kept properties in this part of Central Oak Park. Friends said the lush, hidden oasis that Leasure created with his husband’s help in the back yard, complete with a koi pond and whimsical statues tucked among pockets of plants and flowers, was the gem of the property.
“He called them his secret gardens,” Karen Hall, a friend of the couple’s, said last week as she stood on her front porch.
Across the street, the home that Leasure and Doug Vance had shared stood silent and mostly gutted. A pumpkin sat amid a pile of ashes and sooty debris on the front porch. An acrid odor hung in the air.
The prior evening, a Sunday, Hall and her husband, Don, heard what sounded like an explosion and series of bangs. Thinking there’d been a crash at the intersection in front of their house, they opened their front door and saw Leasure and Vance’s home on fire.
“The whole place was just engulfed,” Don Hall said.
Fire rescue crews responded about 7:45 p.m. on Sept. 24 and arrived to find smoke billowing from all sides of the home, according to information previously released by the department.
Firefighters found Leasure, 64, dead inside, according to St. Petersburg Fire Rescue.
Lt. Garth Swingle, a spokesperson for the department, said the cause of the fire and the cause and manner of Leasure’s death remain under investigation. Foul play is not suspected, Swingle said.
Friends and neighbors learned soon after the fire that the couple’s two dogs, a Shiba Inu named Kobe and a mixed breed named Charlie, also had died in the fire.
Vance was not home at the time of the fire, friends said. A niece of Vance’s told the Tampa Bay Times this week that he was not feeling up to speaking to a reporter but that “he will love Joel forever.”
Leasure and Vance were beloved by a large group of diverse friends, said Rick Nale, a longtime friend. Nale introduced the couple in the 1980s at the Lighted Tree, a since-shuttered gay bar in St. Pete Beach where Nale tended bar at the time.
“They hit it off and had been together ever since,” Nale said.
The couple had already lived in the house for years when Karen Hall moved in across the street in 2003.
“They were the absolute best neighbors I have ever had,” said Hall, who initially lived alone. “When I first moved in, they watched over me, watched over the house.”
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“He was just a really nice guy,” Don Hall said of Leasure, then motioned to some flora sprouting from his own front yard. “A lot of these plants you see around here, he gave those to us.”
In 2013, Leasure and Vance traveled to New Hampshire to get married. The state had legalized same-sex marriage a few years earlier.
“It meant a lot to them to make it official,” Nale said.
Leasure worked as an artist doing merchandise design and for years commuted to Orlando five days a week until retiring several years ago. That gave him more time to spend on the yard. He preferred native plants and flowers that drew birds and butterflies.
“Joel loved nothing better than go out and tinker around in that garden,” Nale said. “He put his artistic touch in that yard.”
The couple enjoyed the arts, history and entertaining friends. After the fire, Nale posted photos of past gatherings, where smiling guests sipped drinks and held plates of food.
Nale also posted photos of the home taken after the fire. Flames had gutted the dining room and charred the back deck and pergola, where friends used to gather. Much of the back garden lay in ruin.
“The dogs must have been going crazy,” Don Hall said. “I’m hoping he was out of it so much that he wasn’t aware and he didn’t feel anything.”
As the Halls talked, their mail carrier walked up, motioned to the burned house and asked what happened. She held up a white envelope she was about to drop off at Leasure’s house. Insurance documents, she said. She said she’d hold on to the mail, waved goodbye and headed to the next house.
By late last week, a new addition had been stuck into Leasure’s beloved front yard: a sign for a fire damage restoration company.