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Mother keeps hope for missing daughter

Detectives have talked to more than 100 people about Diane Augat's case; a tip last month led to a dead end.

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2000


HUDSON -- For more than two years, Mildred Young has allowed herself to hope.

Hope that her daughter, Diane Augat, still is alive.

Hope that the authorities will find whoever cut Augat's finger off and threw it on the side of U.S. 19.

Hope that someday, her nightmare that began in April 1998 will be over.

"A part of me is gone," Young said. "I never accepted she was dead."

Officially, Augat is classified as a "missing person" with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Augat, then 40, was reported missing on Good Friday, April 10, 1998. A week later, her finger was found. About a week after that, a bag of her neatly folded clothes was found in an Odessa convenience store's outdoor freezer case.

Sheriff's detectives have talked to more than 100 people and investigated several leads, said spokesman Jon Powers, including one tip last month that turned out to be a dead end.

"There really has been a tremendous amount of work that has gone into this case," Powers said. "It is frustrating that all that work hasn't produced any more results."

For Young and her family, the lengthy investigation has left them with more questions than answers.

Who was the last person who saw Augat alive? Who cut off her finger? And what about the troubling call she made to her family the day before her finger was found?

Less than a week after her family reported her missing, the phone at Young's home rang. Since no one was inside at the time, the answering machine clicked on.

Young remembers the short message: "Help, help," Augat said. Then, a scuffling sound, as though someone was grabbing the phone from her hands. "Hey, gimme that," Augat said. The call ended.

The number on the Caller ID box said the call came from something called Starlight. When the family tried to call the number back, no one answered.

"I think she knew who she was with," Young said.

Her daughter was very trusting and liked men with money, Young said. In the years prior to her disappearance, Augat battled mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism.

She was once a housewife who doted on her three children and kept a meticulous home, thefamily said. Augat loved camping, fishing and music. Family photos show Augat in happier days, a redhead with a dazzling smile on a boat and in a campground.

In the late 1980s, she was diagnosed as being manic-depressive and sporadically took medication that kept the disorder under control, family members said.

In 1988, the children -- two girls and a boy -- were removed from her custody, according to court documents, and Augat and her husband divorced in 1991.

She was arrested several times for petty crimes and was taken into custody under the state's Baker Act at least 32 times, her mother said. The Baker Act is the state's involuntary commitment law. A judge, police officer or doctor decides whether a person is potentially ill enough to require an involuntary medical exam.

A few weeks before her disappearance, she was treated for her manic-depression at a local mental health facility. Family members think that she should never have been released from that facility.

"She deeply needed institutionalized care," Young said.

Young said her daughter was seen in two local restaurants around the time she was reported missing. A bartender at the Hay Loft Tavern at Little Road and State Road 52 reported seeing Augat on April 10.

Said Powers: "There are people out there who know something that could assist us. It's just a matter of getting them to come forward, just a matter of finding them."

And on the day that she called her family asking for help, a waitress at the Inn on the Gulf in Hudson saw Augat eating lunch, Young said.

The next day, her finger was found.

"Did someone cut her up, piece by piece?" wonders Young. "That's what I think about."

-- Tamara Lush is the police reporter in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6245. Her e-mail address is lush@sptimes.com.

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