Missing mom is found dead
Janet Gifford-Meyers became depressed after giving birth. Police haven't released how she died.
By TAMARA LUSH and MONIQUE FIELDS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001
NEW PORT RICHEY -- For three days, deputies searched Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park for a missing Pinellas lawyer and mother of two. They combed the 8,300-acre park on foot, in helicopters and on horseback and used infrared technology and bloodhounds.
By Tuesday morning, authorities were about to start looking elsewhere, thinking that Janet Gifford-Meyers might have left the park in another vehicle. But they ordered one last sweep near the parking lot where her Nissan Pathfinder was found Friday evening.
Shortly before 10 a.m., two deputies riding bikes noticed a "scent of decomposition" coming from dense palmetto brush, just 150 yards from the lot.
On Tuesday night, medical examiners used dental records to identify the body, said Pasco County sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll.
Doll would not comment on the cause of death or whether foul play is suspected.
An autopsy was scheduled for today at the office of the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner.
"As neighbors and friends, we're just devastated," said Kim Walker of Safety Harbor, who was Gifford-Meyers' neighbor and former co-worker. "She seemed very upbeat, we had no idea anything was wrong."
'She wasn't herself'
Two days before Janet Gifford-Meyers delivered a baby girl named Rebekah, she was jubilant, one neighbor said.
Libby Renshaw, who lives next door, drove Gifford-Meyers to a baby shower in St. Petersburg.
The entire trip, Renshaw recalled, Gifford-Meyers talked about shopping for baby clothes, buying hair bows for her daughter and giving her a bracelet with her name on it.
Gifford-Meyers was on maternity leave from her job as a senior project manager at the Pinellas County Economic Development Department; her husband was at the end of a grant cycle, having been an oceanographic research specialist at the University of South Florida.
The couple planned on spending time with the new baby and their 2-year-old son, Robby.
But her good mood plummeted shortly after she gave birth to Rebekah on March 26.
Her husband, Steven Meyers, told a Times reporter that his wife had expressed doubts about her ability to care for the baby, and she became withdrawn and depressed -- classic symptoms of postpartum depression. At one point, she threatened to commit suicide by taking pills, according to Pinellas sheriff's records.
On April 8, Gifford-Meyers checked herself into Mease Countryside Hospital. She stayed there until Thursday.
That day, Renshaw saw Gifford-Meyers jogging down the sidewalk, less than three weeks after having a Caesarean section. Stunned to see her so active, Renshaw flagged her down.
"Hey, lady," she said. "How are you feeling?"
"Eh," Gifford-Meyers responded, tilting her hand back and forth to say so-so.
She wouldn't make direct eye contact and kept making movements that suggested to Renshaw that she wanted to run away. Renshaw thought the behavior odd.
Still amazed, Renshaw offered words of encouragement.
"Hang in there, Janet," she said. "It will all come back together soon."
On Friday, Meyers said, his wife left home at 8 a.m. to attend a depression-anxiety support group at Mease Countryside. That was the last time he saw her.
"I thought she could be trusted, that it was safe to let her go by herself," Meyers said. "I knew she wasn't herself, though."
Gifford-Meyers' Nissan Pathfinder was found in the park Friday night, just hours after she was reported missing. Although she was not familiar with Pasco County and didn't usually enjoy the wilderness, handwritten directions to the park were found in the Pathfinder.
Police dogs keyed on a scent near the Pathfinder, but the scent grew faint just past the vehicle, investigators said. Sheriff's spokesman Doll said the dogs "are not infallible."
On Friday night, Stephen Meyers called and told Renshaw that his wife was missing.
Renshaw offered to help with the baby. On Saturday, he took her up on her offer, and she has been taking care of Rebekah ever since.
Other neighbors also have rallied with their support.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," Renshaw said. "I keep telling (Rebekah), "Your mommy loves you. Everything is going to be okay.' "
Meyers declined to talk to reporters Tuesday.
A complete life
Gifford-Meyers' disappearance was out of character for the logical, ambitious lawyer, said family and friends.
Her career had its roots in the effort to bring baseball to St. Petersburg more than a decade ago. In 1995, she was named "one of the top 21 lawyers going into the 21st century" by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association.
As an assistant city attorney for St. Petersburg, she did legal work that included financing the stadium and negotiating with prospective tenants. From the city, she moved to Robbins, Gaynor & Bronstein, then a St. Petersburg law firm, to work on developing a sports law department for the firm.
The ties she made then proved long-lasting. In 1998, Gifford-Meyers began working full time for the Pinellas County Economic Development Department, led by assistant county administrator Rick Dodge, who helped bring baseball to town when he was assistant St. Petersburg administrator.
Gifford-Meyers' county personnel file was full of top-rated evaluations and commendation letters.
Dodge wrote one such letter in November 1998, thanking her for working as a "conscientious and effective" acting department director while he was ill.
Friends said that Gifford-Meyers seemed genuinely happy that she had a successful career, a loving husband and two beautiful children, friend Kim Walker said.
"She told me that Rebekah's birth absolutely completed her life," Walker said.
Rebekah's birth, Meyers said, left him feeling about as "high as high can get."
After his wife's disappearance, however, he said he was close to rock bottom.
"I'm hoping I don't hit bottom," he said on Monday, when he was still hoping that his wife would be found alive.
"I'm hoping I don't have to deal with the bottom."
- Times staff writer Lisa Greene, photographer Carrie Pratt and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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