tampabay.com

The search for Sandra

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published January 4, 2007


LAKE PANASOFFKEE - When his girlfriend of five years disappeared a year ago, Earl C. Pippin III chopped wood to ease his anxiety. A year later, he won't talk about it - not even to say who his lawyer is.

Sandra Hamby Prince, a successful Tampa social worker and co-founder of a well-known drug treatment program, vanished around New Year's Eve 2005.

Police found the back door of her Temple Terrace home unlocked, her purse missing and her blood inside the trunk of her car.

Her cell phone, almost always on her hip, lay on a kitchen counter, ringing intermittently as neighbors and friends called, wondering where she'd gone.

No college student partying in Aruba or run-away bride, Prince didn't fit the bill for a high profile missing person. Neither blond nor bubbly, she was graying and, friends say, had a calm, cautious sophistication.

She was approaching 60. She had no children or spouse to plead her case. Her nearest relative was her mother, now 91, in North Carolina.

Though Dovey Hamby offers an $80,000 reward for information leading to her daughter's whereabouts, one thing keeps getting in detectives' way:

Prince was a master at maintaining her privacy.

Even neighbors who worried something was wrong the weekend she vanished second-guessed their instincts, concerned they might be prying.

It isn't that Prince didn't have friends. Some went back 30 years. And she developed an uncommon intimacy with people she paid to help improve her life: her esthetician, her massage therapist, her feng shui consultant, the ladies at her favorite boutique and her gardener.

But on Sept. 13 police publicly confirmed what only two or three of Prince's friends knew when she disappeared: A man named Earl was her sweetheart. He was married. And he was the sole beneficiary of her estate.

Earl Pippin, 53, is someone Temple Terrace police now describe as a "person of interest."

The Lake Pan puzzle

The drive north from Prince's home in Temple Terrace to Lake Panasoffkee takes just about an hour on Interstate 75. Congestion fades to green hills as the highway cuts through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

Exit 321 drops off into a quiet fisherman's retreat that locals call "Lake Pan" - named for the 4,460-acre spring-fed lake. Some question if Prince's body could be there, in the alligator-filled water where airboats glide.

Six months earlier, with Pippin's help, Prince had purchased her ninth Sumter County property at the lake: 4746 County Road 300, a shaded slice of land with a mobile home near a river.

Temple Terrace police Detective Michael Pridemore said Prince was clearing it for a house and might have visited there Dec. 31.

Prince had experience investing in real estate. Her Sumter County assets brought her real estate holdings in Florida to a total assessed value of $1.6-million, records show.

Although Pippin's fishing buddies and lake neighbors say they knew of Prince, none who spoke to the Times recalled seeing her.

Jean Hansen, a pet groomer whose uncle rented a mobile home from Prince, said he exchanged letters with Prince but never met her. Pippin, whose full-time address was a house on Inman Avenue in Tampa, took care of the place.

What people did notice was how much land Pippin had been prospecting for Prince. One piece of property, at 887 County Road 482A, near a home owned by Pippin's parents, is listed in both his and Prince's names.

"It's like he came out of nowhere with a pocketful of money," said Pepper Wysong, one of Pippin's fishing buddies.

Many in this slow, quiet community have heard of Pippin, fished with him or seen his signs advertising Earl Pippin Construction. No one is ready to believe he could be capable of anything sinister.

"He's a nice guy," Hansen said recently as she took a hair dryer to a lumbering Labrador inside her pet grooming salon. "He's just caught up in a lot of crap."

Police say Pippin stopped talking to them about Prince or her disappearance in August.

"The way he's put it, he says he's talked to lawyers and he's not going to talk to us," Pridemore said. Pippin has not given police a lawyer's name.

Pridemore said after Pippin stopped speaking with them, the agency decided to name him a "person of interest" - which is not the same as "suspect."

"He is one of the people in her very private life that actually knew a lot about her," Pridemore said. "With him not wishing to talk with us and no longer communicating with us just piques our interest as to why.

"I don't know if he knows any more. If he continued with us and continued to dialogue with us, I would be able to answer questions that I need to have answered. I can't get them answered."

Pridemore said he hopes the designation might jog the memory of someone who knows Pippin or Prince.

Police have not ruled out the possibility that more than one person may be involved, he said.

After an initial interview, Pippin has declined repeated interview requests from the St. Petersburg Times, most recently while standing in the yard of a house in Lake Panasoffkee, where, police say, he's spending most of his time since his divorce was finalized in November.

Friends like Bill Miller, a Tampa charter boat captain, said he can't imagine his lifelong pal being involved in Prince's disappearance. He is a good-hearted, good-natured man, Miller said.

Days after Prince's reported disappearance, Sumter County sheriff's deputies used cadaver sniffing dogs to search the tract on County Road 300 that she owns. For several weeks leading up to New Year's, Prince had been having work done there, clearing and filling the property in preparation to build a house. Fill dirt had been laid there the same weekend she disappeared, Pridemore said.

The dogs found nothing.

About a month later police released video of a man with his face obscured, driving a car they think was Prince's, and withdrawing money from her ATM accounts. His identity remains unknown.

The new look

It seems strange now when Angie Turner thinks of it. The week Sandra Prince disappeared, Turner's Carrollwood boutique, Ahjaleah's, ran a magazine ad with a picture of Prince smiling confidently in a formal, floor-length blue gown. The photograph, taken in October, was one of the last taken of Prince.

After two to three years of helping the typically dress-down Prince pick out fancy $200 jeans and bold jewelry at their store, Turner and employee Kay Reid had convinced her that she was beautiful enough to be a model.

Today, police use one of the photographs Reid took that day to seek information about Prince. Through blood-red lipstick, blue-gray eye make-up and sparkly gold jewelry, Prince looks like a younger version of herself.

It isn't the picture many have of her. In her youth, friends say, the Virginia-born Duke University graduate wore jeans, no makeup and little jewelry.

But in recent years Prince had undertaken a personal transformation that seemed to encompass almost every aspect of her life, and appeared to coincide with her 2000 purchase of her new Temple Terrace home.

Prince hired a feng shui consultant, Kat Hanson, to help renovate the home's interior. Through Hanson, friends say, Prince met Pippin, a general contractor flexible enough for clients interested in feng shui.

Hanson said her work isn't simply about furniture. She asks clients to examine every aspect of their lives, setting goals for change, and did so with Prince.

"She was a jewel in life," Hanson said. "She became more beautiful as time passed."

Reid and Turner said Prince would agonize over every purchase, trying on tops two or three times. Sometimes she waved an amethyst stone over her intended purchase. But as much attention as Prince needed, she was still grateful and humble, often sending thank you notes.

"She would always say to me, 'Now, have patience with me,' " Reid said. " 'You will get me to wear make-up. I'm just slow.' "

In this tiny strip-mall store with its bangles and lace, Prince opened up about something she told almost no one.

His name was Earl.

Style and sadness

Susan Horton, a friend from Prince's graduate school days at Florida State University, remembered Prince saying she was seeing a man named Earl with whom she had bought property. But Horton had never met him, didn't know his last name and had no idea he was married.

Sudy Foroughi, an Iranian-born esthetican who gave Prince monthly facial treatments, sensed melancholy in her. "Some days," Foroughi said, "she made me cry. ... The whole negativity on this Earth is coming after her. I said, 'God bless me.' I try my best to cheer her up - the best facial, the best massage."

And though Foroughi considered Prince a friend, Prince never spoke of her boyfriend. She said she thinks Prince knew she would not approve of dating a married man. "I want to find her so bad," Foroughi said. "I want to shake her: 'What did you think?' "

At Ahjaleah's, Turner and Reid said they did not judge. Prince had a boyfriend who made her happy, and that was enough.

Still loyal

Foroughi's affection for Prince was not uncommon.

Something about this social worker with a southern accent and a penchant for writing thank you notes evoked loyalty.

David Jarrett, who tends Prince's gardens, said she paid him, but he considered the work a pleasure because she took such delight in his improvements.

He still works on her Temple Terrace yard at her mother's request - though he wonders why. "I did everything so she could enjoy it," he said.

He'd stop, but he doesn't trust anyone to take the care he does.

He was one of the first people to notice Prince was missing. Police say he was there with Pippin and a neighbor on Jan. 3, when the neighbor decided to call police.

Jarrett said he won't talk publicly about that morning, or about Pippin, because he doesn't want to jeopardize the police investigation. He has provided written statements and has been in frequent communication with police, Pridemore said.

An obligation

Pridemore wants to give Prince's mother answers.

Dovey Hamby treks to Florida almost monthly to meet with him, he said. She stays with a relative in her daughter's shaded home, talks with neighbors, then drives back to North Carolina.

Police have conducted close to 300 interviews and followed 150 leads. Pridemore has been to Lake Panasoffkee about 50 times, visiting Prince's properties and searching the lake.

Prince's financial accounts have been unchanged since the days soon after she vanished, Pridemore said. Her work at the Agency for Community Treatment Services is being done by others. Someone else uses her office.

These days her friends and police tend to speak of her in the past tense, except when they ask that one question: Where is she?

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or 813 226-3383.

TIPS

Have information?

Anyone with information about Sandra Prince is asked to call Det. Michael Pridemore with the Temple Terrace police at (813) 989-7110.

Anyone with information about Sandra Prince is asked to call Det. Michael Pridemore with the Temple Terrace police at (813) 989-7110.