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Slain vagrant recalled as nice

"I don't know why anyone would hurt him," says an employee of a Family Dollar store often visited by the man they called Bobby.

Published March 25, 2006

TAMPA - It took two days for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to release his name: Robert John Henry.

It took some time for detectives to notify his mother in North Bergen, N.J., of his death, a sheriff's spokesman said. So for two days Henry, 37, had been referred to publicly as just a homeless man in his 30s who was found dead Wednesday night.

He had stumbled back into a wooded area where he camped off Causeway Boulevard and 78th Street, bleeding from his torso. He keeled over and died, sheriff's officials said.

No other details were released. For years, his life slipped from public view, according to public records. In 2004, he had an address: 9424 Windemere Lake in Riverview. He was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against his spouse that year. In May, he failed to appear in court. The same thing happened in September, Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show.

Two months later, he was living out in the woods next to the Family Dollar store on Causeway Boulevard, according to Ashley Merritt. She recalls seeing 6-foot, 180-pound, brown-haired "Bobby" around for as long as she has worked there. He was usually in a green sweater and blue work pants.

He lived with other vagrants, scavenging cardboard from a trash bin for bedding; building campfires just a few yards from a strip mall that offered the conveniences of 7-Eleven, Western Union and Bravo Supermarkets, which accepts food stamps and sells bottles of beer and fried plantains in the deli.

"There was Bobby. There was BJ. There was Kimberly," said Tammy Phillips, 26, who also works at the Family Dollar.

"Probably eight to 10 people," Merritt, 22, said, "if not more."

At night, the woods came alive. In the daytime, cardboard box benches sit alone in a clearing carpeted by wrappers and cigarette butts.

Henry was the one who bummed cigarettes and ribbed Merritt about the colors she dyed her hair. He was always having a "s---- day," if you asked. But he always said so with a smile.

He bought cans of tuna, chips, cookies and flashlights from the Dollar store when he had cash. He tucked those things in his pants when he didn't.

Store workers caught him stealing several times, they said. Once, he had a trespassing notice against him posted in the store. So he sent his girlfriend, a woman known only as Kimberly, in. Sometimes, store employees would take pity, and his pennies, and buy him the mayonnaise he wanted.

Eventually, the restriction expired and the store manager let him back in. But he would steal again and the routine would start all over.

"We never called the cops," Merritt said.

Dollar store workers gave him $5 or $10 for breaking down cardboard boxes in the back. New cashiers, afraid to walk to their cars, were told Henry and the others were more likely to protect them than hurt them. Regular customers always gave Henry change.

"He was a nice guy," Merritt said. "I don't know why anyone would hurt him."

On the day he was killed, employees remember him coming into the store with his girlfriend. She had a black eye.

"It's not over," employees heard him tell her, as if he wanted retribution for her attacker.

"Yes it is," they say she told him.

It's the only clue store workers have.

"Are they going to have any funeral services for him?" Merritt asked.

"If they do, I'm going," added Phillips.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 25, 2006, 01:50:17]

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