The Murthas say the state was negligent when it placed their disabled daughter in a home where a man with a criminal record lived.
By SUE CARLTON and WAYNE WASHINGTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000
TAMPA -- The last time Patricia Murtha saw her daughter alive was a sunny October afternoon at a gas station off Interstate 75.
It was their weekly way station. Mrs. Murtha and her mentally disabled 12-year-old daughter, Michele, drove up from their home in Charlotte County. Nancy Marlins -- Miss Nancy to Michele -- drove the half-hour down from Seffner.
Michele lived with Marlins during the week and went to a nearby school. It was supposed to be temporary until a space opened in a special-needs group home. But weeks were stretching into months. And Michele's mother was concerned about a man she had seen during a recent visit to Marlins' house.
That day at the gas station, Mrs. Murtha and Marlins talked about Michele's seizures, her diet. Then the child hugged her mom and climbed into Miss Nancy's Toyota. They sped away.
Five days later, there was a message on the Murthas' answering machine. A Hillsborough detective. Call immediately.
"Is this about my daughter?" Tom Murtha asked, panicked. The detective asked if he had seen the story on the news about five people murdered inside a house.
Mr. Murtha looked at his wife.
"Michele's dead," he said. "Nancy's dead too."
Dexter Levingston, Marlins' deaf grandson, is accused of murdering his grandmother, three other family members and Michele.
In the aftermath, the Murthas want to know why officials didn't raise flags that Levingston was living there. They say the state assured them the house would be monitored, their child cared for. Levingston has a misdemeanor record that includes battery.
The Department of Children and Families would not comment, citing privacy concerns. But the Murthas say Michele's story offers a glimpse into how the system deals with disabled children.
They have notified the state they plan to sue for negligence. "We intend to make sure this can never, ever happen to another child," Mrs. Murtha said.
The Murthas met and married in New York in 1987 and moved to Brandon. When she became pregnant, she teased her husband after her first doctor's visit.
"I'm not having a baby," said Mrs. Murtha, 45. "I'm having two."
Fraternal twins Michele and Patrick were inseparable. For the first 16 months of her life, Michele was normal, a spitfire. Then came the seizures, the medications, the developmental disabilities. There were times she could not swallow or hold up her head. The doctors could never say for sure what caused it, but Michele was never the same. Patrick has no disability.
Michele's parents sought the best help they could find, enrolling her in school after school.
One day, Mrs. Murtha sat next to her daughter's bed at Tampa General, where Michele was admitted after a seizure. A woman walked in. It was the aide from Michele's kindergarten class.
Her name was Nancy Marlins.
"How's that little girl?" Marlins asked.
They struck up a relationship. Marlins sometimes babysat for Michele before the family moved.
"She was just one of those special angels," Mrs. Murtha said Wednesday.
Caring for Michele had consumed the Murthas' lives and stretched their energies and finances to the limit..
"We needed Patty to work," Mr. Murtha said.
"I was falling apart," Mrs. Murtha said. "I was becoming a zombie."
They had high hopes for a group home in Hillsborough run by a private organization called Quest Inc. It had the services Michele needed, and state money paid for some of the clients there.
They were told the Quest home was full, so they put Michele in a Charlotte County group home. But there was no teaching, no therapy.
"It was just baby-sitting," Mr. Murtha said. "Michele was regressing."
They became even more convinced about the Quest home. They say state officials assured them a space would soon be available.
With the Hillsborough school year about to start, they decided to let Nancy Marlins care for Michele during the few weeks before the spot in the Quest home opened up. The Department of Children and Families agreed to pay Marlins. The Murthas say they were assured the department would complete the necessary checks to make sure their daughter was safe.
Michele was happy to be reunited with Miss Nancy, who took her out for movies, dinner and shopping. The Murthas expected a short wait.
Then, on a visit to the Marlins home a few weeks ago, Mrs. Murtha saw a man washing Marlins' car. She said she didn't bring it up with Marlins but reported it to their caseworker.
Mr. Murtha, 47, didn't want a strange man in the same home with his disabled daughter. But the Murthas say the department never responded to their concerns.
Levingston, who had listed his grandmother's address on various records and who relatives say was living there, had convictions for charges including battery and DUI.
Wednesday, less than a week after they buried their daughter, the Murthas faced TV cameras at the office of their Tampa lawyer, Richard Hirsch.
"If I knew there was anyone in there with a criminal record, I would have been up there in a jet plane," Mr. Murtha said.
"I cry a hundred times a day," he said.
The cruel gap between what was supposed to be -- Michele in a safe, therapeutic group home -- and the reality of her loss squeezed tears from his eyes.
"We were so close," he said. "We were this close."