GULFPORT, FL, June 2004
By Laura Fries
Thelma Riley remembers waking up to a thump. She wasn’t sure what time it was – maybe three or four in the morning. It was dark. She went back to sleep. Thinking back on it now, she is not positive she even heard it. “Maybe I dreamed it,” she says, “but not likely.”
Around 10:30 a.m. on May 6, she heard a banging on the door outside. A woman was yelling and pounding on her neighbor’s door. “Robert, let me in! I know you’re in there,” she heard the woman repeat. Riley went outside and asked her to leave her neighbor alone. The same woman came back later in the afternoon, with a friend. There was a radio softly playing music, but otherwise the home was quiet. Riley thought her neighbor was playing possum. She left him a message on his cell phone, saying she was next door if he wanted to talk.
Looking back, Riley now believes the thump she heard was the sound of her neighbor’s body, slumping as it hit the closet floor.
In two years of living next to each other, Thelma Riley and Robert Marshall had struck up an unlikely friendship. Each occupied small quarters in a blue and white duplex on 24th Avenue South. A 49-year-old substitute teacher, he would give her pointers on the tutoring she dabbled in. In turn, she would run small errands for him-giving him occasional rides or picking up a new tire for his wheelchair when he needed one. He couldn’t scale the steps into her house, and he never invited her into his. But when she’d pass by his apartment and see him sitting in front of the TV or the computer, they would both wave. Riley, 75, figured that he had his own group of people, but she considered him a good friend.
At 11 a.m. on May 6, Nancy Barclay called the police from Pennsylvania. She was worried about her brother Robert. Half an hour later, Officer Daniel Negersmith and Sgt. Paul Martin arrived at the duplex. Unable to locate a key from the real estate agent, they obtained permission to break into the apartment. Negersmith searched the home, sweeping his flashlight into the closet, full of clothes and a wheelchair. He later wrote in the police report that the home was well-lived in and smelled of old sweat. Seventeen minutes after entering, the officers left and called Linda Holmes at Caldwell Realty to let her know that the door needed to be fixed. They called his family at noon and told them Marshall was not at home. Holmes and the handyman made their way to the apartment.
Marion Marshall recalls her son as the boy who wished his brother and sister were his own age, and not 10 years older-the boy who never said no to a dare, even when it involved eating detergent. He loved to draw people’s faces-an artist who refused to take lessons. He loved mountains, water and sunshine. He would get up in the morning and be happy-leaving notes on the refrigerator that read, “Have a great day.”
Marshall had skipped around Europe after the car accident that paralyzed him at age 19, using the lawsuit money to travel. A perpetual student, he spent time at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina and the University of New Mexico. But he never managed to get his degree. Along the way, he started a business and a family, but neither were very successful. He left his ex-wife, son and daughter behind in North Carolina when he moved to Gulfport, only 40 minutes away from his parents’ winter home.
In Florida, Marshall was very independent. He’d take the bus everywhere: to the Winn-Dixie food store, to visit his parents Clyde and Marion in Dunedin, and to the schools in Pinellas County where he taught. Riley remembers him sitting outside and reading, bare-chested in the sun. He spoke to everyone who passed by, she recalled. He would draw and write poetry.
At work, he was remembered for his sense of humor, especially about his wheelchair. Kathy Lambert, principle secretary at Gibbs High School, remembers one story well. He had arrived at school and asked her if she could see him. When she said that she could, he asked again: Could she see him? He had been waiting that dark morning for the bus and it had flown right by him.
He wanted to know if he was invisible.
Jeffrey Porter was the next to visit Robert Marshall on May 6. It was only a few hours after the police had left. The maintenance man for Caldwell Realty, Porter had come to fix the lock they broke. According to the written statement given to police, Porter went into the kitchen, and checked on the stove he had installed the week before. He checked the back door for damage. It was then that he noticed the wheelchair in the closet. He knew Marshall only owned one. Linda Holmes, the Realtor, was waiting in the car. He went out to tell Holmes what he had seen, then returned to the closet.
He pushed the wheelchair forward. It hit something solid. Porter ran out to the car and told Holmes to call the police. He had found what Negersmith missed. He had found Robert Marshall.
“He said yes when he should have said no,” Marion recalls of her son Robert. He said yes to adventures, skiing while paralyzed; yes to helping others learn; and yes to crack cocaine.
His addiction made his life very limited, his mother said, curtailing his ability to have friends. He was part of a substance abuse group, attending meetings, and he had been in and out of rehab.
With Riley, his neighbor, he was not direct about his addiction, but the truth was evident in the cracks in their conversation. When he’d say, “drugs were easy to get,” Riley never pressed him. She was struck by his sense of guilt. He thought he was a bad person for using drugs, she relates, and thought people didn’t like him because of it. People would come over at all hours of the night, walking in without knocking. When they left, Marshall would apologize. “This won’t happen again,” Riley remembers him saying to her. She wasn’t sure exactly what he was referring to, but she had an idea.
In his last months, he called home every day. Often, he would call from school on his cell phone. But the conversations were brief, and he wouldn’t talk about why he was calling, Marion remembers. He took the two buses up to his parents’ winter home most weekends, stopping to transfer buses in Clearwater. He didn’t want his father to have to drive that far. While visiting his parents in Dunedin, he led a quiet life. “We couldn’t get him to go anywhere,” his mother says. When they were invited out, he would make an excuse not to go. “He was either tired, or he just didn’t want to do it,” Marion remembers. They last saw him on April 17, his father’s birthday.
Marshall was supposed to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, later that May, in North Carolina. He was really planning for that trip, his mother remembers. “He was going to be there no matter what.” But as the trip grew closer, his plans crumbled. The money he was going to use for the trip disappeared. He sold his TV. His mother is certain she knows the reason. “He sold it because he was too addicted.” She believes he sold it to his dealer.
May 6, 2 p.m. Police arrived for the second time that day at Robert Marshall’s home. It had been nearly 10 hours since the thump.
When they looked in the closet again, they found him. White clothesline was wrapped around his neck. They roped off the area, interviewed the witnesses and removed the body. Detective Burkhart looked around to find some clues. But he didn’t find any answers, just shards of a complex life. Some poetry. A pipe, used to smoke crack cocaine.
Riley remembers the service in Dunedin was simple but well attended. His parents left their winter home soon afterward and made their way back to Pennsylvania. His apartment remains empty. It’s for rent now, $475 a month, and freshly painted inside.
Next door, Riley can’t forget her friend Robert. And so, she sat down to write a letter of remembrance. She sent it to The Gabber, the community newspaper, and it ran the first week of July. “Remember Robert?” she wrote to Gulfport. “I will not see Robert’s hands guiding his wheelchair around our quiet streets anymore and neither will you. Why doesn’t this seem to upset anyone? Where are the questions, the pursuits? Why isn’t this news?” •
was written in June 2004. As a 23-year-old reporter, I was thrilled to accept a 2004 College Fellowship at Poynter Institute for Journalism. Each fellow was assigned to a geographic beat, and turned loose in a strange city to search for stories that we wrote, edited, and published under the guidance of our Poynter mentors.
It was a hell of an experience, and I was happy to find a hell of a story.
Originally published at PointsSouth.net.