tampabay.com

Woman's vanishing leaves many questions, few clues

A private person, Sandra Hamby Prince remains an enigma.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published January 15, 2006


TEMPLE TERRACE - It's been two weeks since anyone has seen Sandra Hamby Prince.

In that time, infants born on the day Prince disappeared have learned to smile and lift their heads. The calendar closed on one year and opened on another. Crime scene tape that decorated Prince's front lawn has been taken down.

Still Prince, a 59-year-old social worker who co-founded one of Tampa Bay's first substance abuse treatment programs, remains an enigma.

From what police will say, it's as if Prince walked out of her shaded stucco home in Theresa Arbor, left the back door unlocked and promptly vanished, her life landmarked by a still-burning front porch light and newspaper stories bearing her photo.

There was no sign of struggle, police said. Her car was still there. Her cell phone, too, neighbors report.

She might have driven to North Florida over New Year's weekend, but no one has been able to say for sure. She lives alone, but it's just not like her, folks who know her say, to leave without telling anyone.

Fifty-thousand dollars will go to whoever can lead detectives to Prince's whereabouts.

"With each day, our hope of there being a positive outcome is diminishing," neighbor Teree Miller, 38, said. "You have faith, but the reality is it's been two weeks missing, no sign of her."

Police ended their 24-hour patrol of the residence Thursday, turning the house back over to Prince's family. The simultaneous disappearance of the startling yellow crime scene tape that surrounded the property brought hope to those who live in the 10 houses along Moffat Place.

"Unfortunately," Temple Terrace police spokeswoman Paula MacDonald said, "it doesn't mean we're any closer. We are trying to get that neighborhood to return to some sense of normalcy."

Prince - a woman friends and colleagues describe as quiet, cautious, friendly, professionally driven and caring - seems to have left few clues.

Some co-workers said they believe they saw her on Dec. 30 at work. But Julie Reynolds, attorney for the Agency for Community Treatment Services, which Prince co-founded almost 30 years ago, said on Friday that Prince worked in the field so often, no one at the office is even completely confident of that.

Did they really see her that day - the day before New Year's Eve when so many people were off, so many meetings canceled? Or are they misremembering?

"I wouldn't put it beyond Sandra to just take off," ex-husband Luke Horvath, 58, said. "Except the part that doesn't make sense is (that she didn't call) work. She was the consummate professional."

Prince's career has been her passion.

She helped start ACTS in 1978 when the only treatment program in the Tampa Bay area was at the Salvation Army, where Prince took a job soon after getting her master's degree at Florida State University. Even though she'd risen through the ranks to be a top-level administrator overseeing professional development, Prince's reputation remained that of someone who put clients first.

"We've really got to find her," said John Marrocco, ACTS executive director and Prince's longtime associate. "This is a rough one."

Police have interviewed practically everyone at the office, he said.

Finding insight into her non-work life is a bit harder. She is intensely private, it seems, and fiercely independent.

The last time Prince was married was 18 years ago. She has no children and is an only child. She keeps close contact with her mother, 91-year-old Dovie Hamby, in Boone, N.C. Her father, with whom she was very close, died in a farm accident during Prince's college years at Duke University.

And though Prince told a longtime friend recently she was dating someone she owned property with at Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County, she gave few details. Jerry and Susan Horton never met their good friend's paramour.

"She didn't want to jinx it," said Jerry Horton, 53, who last saw Prince in mid December.

Prince shared a key to her home with at least one neighbor. And it was a neighbor who alerted police that Sandra had not been heard from.

Those who know Prince describe a thoughtful person who enjoys simple pleasures:

She doesn't watch television; doesn't even own one. She enjoys leaving little gifts for friends, a Valentine candy on Feb. 14, an Easter treat at Easter, a poinsettia in time for Christmas, a thank you note when you weren't sure you'd deserved one.

In recent years, Prince had gone from being a habitual jeans and T-shirt girl to dressing up more.

And she had recently taken an interest in health foods and herbal medicines, even suggesting to friend Rose Ferlita, a pharmaceutical consultant and Tampa City Council member, that she try herbal remedies. Prince loved her 2,421-square-foot home with the big red double doors at the front, last month showing off the new decor inside - a very calming place, a friend recalled.

"I think she just made some changes and got very feng shui on us," said Horton, who remembers when he and wife Susan used to spend weekends primitive camping with Prince and her then-husband, Horvath.

Prince owns plenty of rental property in the Tampa Bay area, including several Section 8 homes. One renter, Shirley Godfrey, 43, said she "just loved her. She fixed anything I asked her to."

Prince also owns 10 properties at Lake Panasoffkee, in Sumter County.

One of them she co-owns with a general contractor named Earl C. Pippin, based in Tampa, Sumter County property records show. Asked the nature of their relationship, Pippin said that he and Prince were not dating. Pippin, who at first denied he owns property with her, said he'd done work for Prince. But he said he was anxious over her disappearance and was working with police to try to find her.

A few days after police announced Prince missing, Sumter County Sheriff's Office used cadaver-sniffing dogs to scour a riverfront property she had purchased in Lake Panasoffkee in June. Neighbors report that until the deputies arrived, workers had been there filling and clearing the land.

MacDonald, the Temple Terrace spokeswoman, said she hopes people don't forget about Prince. Though the investigation continues, there's nothing new for now - no persons of interest, no suspects.

Tips have increased since the family posted a substantial reward, though.

"Certain things are being observed and talked about that aren't in the interest of the public to release," she said Friday. "Hopefully, next week we'll have more information."

Anyone with information in Prince's disappearance is asked to call Temple Terrace police at (813) 989-7110.