With boss still missing, gardener recounts past

"You have nothing to do with it, but you feel you could have prevented it," he says.

Published October 31, 2007

TEMPLE TERRACE - He still tidies her yard, waters her ginger plants, removes the leaves from her gutters. These deeds bring him no joy anymore, but he trusts no one else to do them.

Inside her empty house hangs a painting immortalizing a friendship that began just this way, with him caring for her property.

David Jarrett remembers the day Sandra Prince asked him to be in the portrait, now a subject of great interest for police: "You're as much a part of the garden as the flowers themselves," she told him.

Gardener Jarrett spoke in detail for the first time Tuesday about his relationship with the social worker who disappeared near New Year's Day 2006 at age 59.

He told the St. Petersburg Times about the lengthy notes he exchanged with Prince. And he described his early fears that something bad had happened to her.

Jarrett, 47, says investigators once believed he played a role in her disappearance. He says he didn't, and police say he passed a lie detector test.

Now they hypothesize that Jarrett's presence in Prince's life may have made another man - her boyfriend - jealous.

Jarrett has a nagging sense: Maybe, if he had called police sooner, he could have saved her.

"Looking back on this, you see all your mistakes," Jarrett said, a pair of reading glasses hanging beneath his white-bearded chin. "You have nothing to do with it, but you feel you could have prevented it."

* * *

In his mind, those days run together, the days preceding Jan. 3, 2006, when he and a neighbor reported Prince missing.

The Wednesday before New Year's Day 2006 could be Thursday, and the Thursday could be Friday. He's not sure anymore.

He said he believes he was on his way to Home Depot in Tampa Palms on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005, when he called Prince before 7 a.m. to tell her he was picking up a Christmas present for her. She didn't answer.

The Queen bromeliad plant he bought fell over in his truck, making a mess. When he got to her house, he saw her car was in the garage. He knocked on the door. No answer. He called her phone again. Nothing.

He wrote her a note in the shared journal they kept in the garage, hid the bromeliad in her bushes and left.

The next day he returned. Her car was still there. She didn't answer the doorbell. He let himself in, yelling out for her. Her cell phone lay on the kitchen counter. A white Bible lay on her bed.

She hadn't written a response in the journal.

Jarrett went home and told his wife, Marsha, something was wrong with Sandra Prince.

The next day, the two of them checked on her house together.

On one of those days, he told Prince's good friend and neighbor, Nancy Sackville, too. No one could figure it out.

"It was like you just took her and evaporated her out of the house," he said.

* * *

Over the years, Prince and Jarrett had filled three log books with notes to one another.

It started as a way to communicate about the work he did around her house, but over time expanded to include discussions on politics, religion and more - "everything from abortion to Omega," Jarrett says.

Jarrett thought up the idea. Prince liked it and bought a pricey journal. She found a small iron-framed table with a marble top, which she put in the garage to hold the journal. On the bottom shelf, she left a vase of pens.

After Jarrett wrote one day that he had forgotten his reading glasses and couldn't decipher her note, he arrived the next day to find a pair of drugstore reading glasses waiting for him.

Jarrett says police asked him if anyone reading the journals might see them as flirtatious.

He would write that he needed to shed his winter fat, so she better stop leaving sandwiches. "Oh, you're not all that fat," she'd respond.

Flirtatious? He didn't think so but could see that someone might.

When police arrived at Prince's house on Jan. 3, 2006, the journals were missing.

Also gone: Prince's purse and a bedside picture of Prince with Earl C. Pippin III, 53, the married man police say she dated for five years - the man they call a "person of interest."

Police found Prince's blood in her trunk and on her garage door. They still haven't found the journals.

* * *

Jarrett thinks he might have seen Pippin around a couple of times.

But on the morning of Jan. 3, 2006, Pippin was at Prince's house without Prince.

Jarrett remembers entering the garage from inside the house, searching for Prince. That's when he saw a note on her windshield signed by "Earl."

"Sorry, I had to disconnect your battery because your alarm went off," Jarrett thinks the note said.

Pippin came up behind him in the garage, saying he was looking for a pipe wrench he left behind, Jarrett said.

Then Sackville, the neighbor, arrived.

At first, Jarrett said he thought Pippin worked at the drug treatment agency Prince helped found, the Agency for Community Treatment Services, but it wasn't clear to him.

Jarrett had already tried calling ACTS for Prince, the day before. The office was closed for the holiday.

Sackville and Jarrett tried to find a number for Prince's mother. But when contacted at her North Carolina home, Dovey Hamby hung up on them, confused.

"I said, 'That's it, let's call the police,'" Jarrett recalled.

Pippin left, saying he wanted to go to ACTS to make sure she wasn't there. Sackville phoned the police.

Pippin called back shortly after, saying he needed to take his son to a doctor's appointment, Jarrett said.

In public documents last week, police wrote that Pippin gave conflicting accounts of where he went after leaving Prince's home.

Pippin's attorney, Paul Sisco, said he doesn't believe any of Temple Terrace police detectives' suspicions about his client.

Pippin is innocent, Sisco said, and only wants Prince to be found.

* * *

Jarrett said he never knew Prince had a boyfriend. He wonders if she didn't talk about it because she knew Jarrett, a conservative Christian, would disapprove of an extramarital affair.

Prince was single with no children, but Pippin was married at the time.

When Prince asked Jarrett to be in the painting with her, Jarrett said he scoffed at first, telling her he needed to talk it over with his mother and his wife before giving her an answer.

Though he and Prince talked about many things, he remembers touching her only once, a friendly hug of gratitude. He considered her his boss and rarely called her by her first name.

"It's pretty hard for me to explain to my wife and my mother why I'm in a painting in a woman's living room," he remembers saying.

Jarrett began rethinking everything that had happened before Prince's disappearance.

In September 2006, police publicly called Pippin a "person of interest" in the case, noting that he was Prince's boyfriend and sole beneficiary to her estate.

Jarrett couldn't help but think about the painting and the journals he had shared with Prince.

Was it possible that her boyfriend was unhappy that she had held another man in such high esteem?

He wonders, as police do.

He knows in his heart she's no longer alive.

But where is she?

He hopes for answers, but for now all he has is the garden to tend.