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    Dispute divides girl's remains

    A bitter child-custody battle will end with each side receiving half of her ashes.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    FORT MYERS -- Paul DeRobertis hasn't seen his daughter Angel for seven years. Now he just wants the right to bury her.

    DeRobertis, a Pinellas Park computer technician, says he has been fighting his dead ex-wife's family for years for custody of Angel, who was killed last week by her maternal grandmother in a murder-suicide in Fort Myers.

    Bitter child-custody disputes are nothing new, but the one over Angel reached a new level Thursday. Family members went to court, each side seeking custody of the 11-year-old girl's body for burial.

    The result was a Solomon-like decision.

    Angel is to be cremated. The feuding branches of her family will split her ashes so each side can hold its own memorial service. The aunt who adopted Angel agreed to give DeRobertis copies of the girl's childhood photos, videos and school papers.

    DeRobertis -- exhausted and emotional -- was just glad the dispute was over.

    "This has been a very long road for me and my family," he said, "Peace has to be made."

    He last saw Angel in 1993, when she was 4.

    "I don't even know what she looks like," he said.

    Angelea Marie DeRobertis was born on Valentine's Day 1990 at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center, the daughter of Paul and Diane DeRobertis. The couple divorced later that year.

    Diane DeRobertis died of brain cancer in 1994 near Fort Myers. Since then, Angel had been living near Macon, Ga., with a maternal aunt and uncle, Tammy and Keith Hoogstad.

    Paul DeRobertis, 37, said his ex-wife's family hid Diane's death from him and took Angel to Georgia without his consent. He said the Hoogstads, who couldn't have children of their own, stole Angel from him and have been hiding the girl from him for years.

    He said he hired detectives and lawyers, but a search for his daughter led nowhere.

    "They disappeared pretty well," DeRobertis said.

    The Hoogstads say that's ridiculous. They say DeRobertis abandoned Angel. They think he's only showing an interest in Angel now because he wants to sue them.

    "My company, CKB Landscaping, has been in the phone book for the last 13 years," Keith Hoogstad said. "We've lived in the same house for six years. His story of not being able to find us, it's the silliest thing in the world."

    Tammy Hoogstad's mother, 59-year-old Elaine Barnhart, killed herself and Angel on March 30 while the girl was visiting Barnhart's home in Fort Myers during spring break.

    Barnhart left a suicide note of sorts: a long message on her own answering machine, saying she didn't want Angel to return home. On the tape, Barnhart is ranting and also whispering to Angel, telling her what to say. It's obvious the girl didn't know what was about to happen.

    Barnhart left her Cadillac running in the garage. Carbon monoxide filled the house. Police knocked down the door and found the bodies April 4.

    The Hoogstads say Barnhart had mental problems and wrote a letter threatening to kill the family during a visit to their Georgia home in November.

    "She was just very disturbed," said Tammy Hoogstad, 37. But they put Angel on a plane to visit her because they didn't think Barnhart would hurt her.

    Police called DeRobertis with the news.

    DeRobertis has a 1994 court order from a Pinellas County judge, giving him sole custody of Angel. The Hoogstads have Georgia court orders stripping DeRobertis of his parental rights and naming Mrs. Hoogstad as Angel's guardian.

    Since her death, Angel's body has been at a medical examiner's office. Lee County Circuit Judge Lynn Gerald Jr. was to hold a hearing Thursday on the competing claims for her body. Instead, he urged the two sides to resolve their differences, and the families agreed to split Angel's remains.

    By Thursday night, after news reports of the case, DeRobertis had received harassing phone calls about how the case was settled. He asked people to keep their views to themselves.

    DeRobertis, who has three children with his second wife, will have a memorial service for Angel. He said he won't sue the Hoogstads, but he still feels cheated.

    "They got to enjoy her," he said. "I didn't."

    And in the mail, he'll soon receive photos of a tall, skinny girl with brown hair down to her waist.

    The Angel he never knew.

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