An assault that never stopped

Published May 14, 2007


For longer than anyone can remember, Audrey Mulligan was a fixture at the 49er Flea Market, smoking her Mistys, checking her Lotto numbers and occasionally selling a knickknack from her tidy booth.

"Find your treasure at the 49er, " says the flea market sign, and for the Brooklyn native, the treasure was something precious beyond price.

With no husband or children, the 78-year-old Mulligan found a surrogate family in her fellow dealers. So when a rapist attacked Mulligan in her condo in March, they quickly stepped in to help.

One put up a composite of the suspect that led to a tip. Others took her flowers in the hospital. Her "boys" - the dealers in the adjoining booth - installed new locks on her doors so she would feel safer when she went home.

Except she didn't want to go home. "I'm sore, " she told friends. "I'm not able to get around yet."

They wondered if Mulligan was afraid of being alone.

Neither they nor Mulligan knew she was being attacked again. Only this time, by something she couldn't see.

The Redhead's boys

From a few tables set up yard-sale style in the '70s, the flea market on 49th Street N has grown into a close-knit community of dealers and customers. It has hosted birthday parties and weddings; the 49er's owner once had to pay a preacher $20 after the bride skipped out on the groom.

"This is character central, " says Ken Davis, who runs the snack bar.

Among the regulars were Ruthie Rossomando and her daughter, Audrey. They had moved from New York, where Audrey was once married to a cop and worked for IBM.

Every Sunday - the flea market's big day - Ruthie and Audrey prowled the rows of assorted junk as they hunted for antiques and fine collectibles. Steve McLean and partner Keith Rudloff met the women in 1988 when Ruthie scolded them for selling exquisite glassware too cheaply.

From then on, mother and daughter "kind of latched on to us, " says McLean, 50. Audrey began calling them her boys, and opened her own booth.

After Ruthie died at age 95, Audrey's friendship with the men deepened. They came for holiday dinners, did repairs around her house and watched her booth on the rare occasions she wasn't there. They called her the Redhead.

Mulligan grew close to other dealers, too. Tracy Boch, with the retro furniture. Nancy Gamble, whose mother was among the 49er's original dealers. John Cole, who brought Mulligan the Sunday paper with the lottery numbers.

"With Audrey and a lot of the others here, it's their outing, " McLean says. "If they make $10, they've had a good day. It's not about money, but socializing with other people."

A violent struggle

In 2001, Mulligan sold her house and bought a small condo in Paradise Shores, a modest but well-kept adults-only complex off 54th Avenue N. Her ground-floor unit was at the very back.

Early in the afternoon of March 12, a man knocked on Mulligan's back door and asked to use the phone. She assumed he was one of the roofers working at the complex, and let him in.

The man made a call and asked for something to drink. Then he grabbed her. Mulligan screamed and tried to knee him in the groin.

"She said she used cuss words she'd never used before, " John Cole recalls. "She had that Brooklyn fire."

As they struggled, they apparently tripped over some furniture, he landing heavily on top of her. Afraid of angering him, she stopped fighting.

"Will you forgive me?" he asked repeatedly. "Please forgive me. I'm sorry, I won't do it again."

"I will never forgive you!" she shouted as he ran out. "Go straight to hell!"

Mulligan called 911. She was remarkably calm. Ever the antiques dealer, at one point she admonished a Pinellas sheriff's deputy who was reaching for a bag in which to put evidence.

"Don't take that, " she ordered. "It's a Betty Boop bag - it's very collectible."

Other, older victims

With the attack on Mulligan, law enforcement authorities suspected a serial rapist was preying on older, single women.

The week before, a 58-year-old disabled woman had been raped in her apartment in far west St. Petersburg. And on March 2, an 85-year-old had been physically assaulted with what police called "sexual overtones" near Gateway Mall in north St. Petersburg.

Cole, who also has a small store on 54th Avenue N, printed out a composite of the suspect and put it up.

"I've seen him, " a customer said. "I've seen him on the bus."

Cole called authorities, who had already surmised the rapist was using public transportation since the victims lived far apart yet close to bus routes. Poring over surveillance tapes, sheriff's detectives found one that showed the victim in the second attack getting off a bus - followed by a man whose face was clearly visible.

At 11 a.m March 16, the videotape was released to the media. By 3 p.m., tipsters had identified the man - Virgil Eugene DeBose.

DeBose, 42, had spent most of his life in the Central Florida town of Sanford, where he had a lengthy criminal record including a 2005 arrest for sexual battery. He had recently moved to St. Petersburg, where he was staying at least part of the time at a recovery house for addicts and alcoholics.

The Sheriff's Office matched his fingerprints to those in Mulligan's condo. St. Petersburg police found DeBose in a car near Tropicana Field and linked him with DNA evidence to the second assault. The third and oldest victim would not cooperate.

Four days after Mulligan was attacked, DeBose was charged with two counts each of sexual assault and burglary.

"He would not talk to investigators so we were left with the big question, why was he in the area?" says police spokesman Bill Proffitt. "Or why he did what he did."

Pain wouldn't quit

Though the attack left Mulligan with a broken pelvis and badly bruised arms, she seemed to be in good humor and recovering well.

McLean and Rudloff joked that her unkempt hair made her look like a collectible Troll doll.

"She's such a strong woman, " said Cole, who visited her in the hospital. "She right away started telling me everything the attacker said. She was very open, very talkative."

Mulligan, though, complained of pain. She said she felt pressure to leave the hospital too soon because her insurance coverage was running out. On her own, she found a rehabilitation center a mile from the 49er.

Again, she seemed to do well at first. But she balked at going home. Cole asked if she thought the assault might be affecting her mentally.

"She told me, 'I don't feel that way. I want to put this behind me and get back to the market.' "

On subsequent visits, Cole noticed her color looked bad. At one point, she said she hadn't seen a doctor in five days.

By April 15, Mulligan had deteriorated so much she was back in the hospital. Doctors did emergency surgery, but there was no hope - infection and gangrene were ravaging her body.

Mulligan died early the next morning.

"For her all of a sudden to go and die, that really shocked us as much as the attack, " says Davis of the 49er snack bar. "Her mother lived so long, and there was no doubt in my mind she had another 10 or 15 years of healthy life."

New charges filed

After Mulligan died, DeBose was charged with first-degree murder. According to the booking report, the medical examiner concluded Mulligan died of complications from the broken pelvis. Humana, her insurer, would not comment on her treatment, citing patient privacy concerns.

With Mulligan gone, Tracy Boch and Nancy Gamble are now dealing with the Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office. "Her friends intend to be there, " Gamble says of upcoming court proceedings.

Davis taped a copy of Mulligan's obituary to the snack bar window, with this note: We'll miss you Audrey.

McLean and Rudloff say they may arrange a potluck at the flea market in Mulligan's memory. They plan to take over her booth and call it Audrey's Attic.

But John Cole can no longer bear to look in that direction. He still sees Mulligan poring over the Sunday paper, a cigarette pressed to her lips as she checks to see if maybe, just maybe, she's the big Lotto winner.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.