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    Police, family search for answers in death


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001

    ST. PETERSBURG -- The significance of police and media vehicles outside the front door dawned on Beverly Robinson late in the day when she watched the evening news.

    Earlier, a woman's body was found in flames down the street, and police were hoping someone would see photos of a heart-shaped ring on television and identify the dead woman.

    "I looked up, and it was her ring," Robinson said. "I gave her that."

    The dead woman was 42-year-old Betty Jean Bates, Robinson's sister. For Christmas a few years ago, Robinson gave her the heart-shaped ring with the letter "B" in the center.

    A mother of two and grandmother of five, Bates was a survivor who battled a cocaine problem but always managed to take care of herself and find food and work, family and friends said Tuesday. She kept herself neat, cleaned hotel rooms and never sold her body for drugs, they said.

    "Everybody's got problems, but nobody deserves to have a life taken like that," said Robinson, 50. "She never harmed nobody or nothing."

    The city's third murder victim of the year, Bates was found behind McCabe United Methodist Church at 4:10 a.m. Feb. 15. Someone driving by the church at 2800 26th Ave. S called to report a brush fire, but when paramedics arrived, they discovered a woman burned beyond recognition.

    For now, detectives decline to say exactly how Bates was killed. They are waiting for results of toxicology tests and tissue samples.

    "They said she wasn't shot. She wasn't stabbed. She wasn't strangled," said Robinson, a medical records custodian at Suncoast Medical Clinic.

    Detectives on Tuesday released the woman's name and played parts of a 911 call, hoping the man who reported the "big blazing fire" would get in touch with them and say more about what he saw that morning. He is not a suspect.

    Investigators also want to track Bates' last 48 hours and are curious about the 911 caller's report of a van leaving the dirt road along the church property at a high rate of speed and with its lights off.

    "The information about this van is extremely significant," said homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz.

    Anyone with information is asked to call (727) 893-7339. The Police Department's appeal came as family members struggled with the mystery.

    Since the death, friends have been calling family members with questions. Among them, how did Bates end up in a secluded field two-tenths of a mile from her sister's house? Was she on her way home and someone grabbed her?

    "I'm torn apart about how it happened," said her brother, Kenneth J. De Laney Jr.

    Bates either stayed with family members or friends. A day or two might go by without contact with her, but she always popped up or called and never missed a special event or holiday, De Laney said.

    She has been arrested in the past on drug charges but recently started attending Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church to turn her life around.

    "In each family, there may be someone out there straying a little bit, but she knew she could come home and lay her head down and have a decent meal," said De Laney, 39, a supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service.

    He said he wants the killing solved before the funeral at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bethel Community Baptist Church.

    "We cannot stand by this time and say, "Well, it happens,' " De Laney said. "No one should die like this. No one."

    Julius Gardner, a manager at Pacesetter Personnel Service on Central Avenue, saw Bates two weeks ago. Bates used to go there to find work.

    "She looked great," said Gardner, 38. "I was like, "Wow, Betty's looking good.' "

    Her last job for Pacesetter was Jan. 31 at the Hyatt Regency in Tampa. She made $29.15 that day.

    Her family said she dropped out of middle school when she was 14 and later worked as a nursing aide. Her love was housekeeping and arranging food trays for parties.

    "She was a dedicated person," said Robinson, her sister.

    Robinson last saw her Feb. 12. Bates came over to Robinson's house and showed off a pair of shoes and teased her sister that she wouldn't be able to wear them because of the size.

    Robinson had to leave for work. "I'll see you later," Bates told her.

    She never did.

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