PLANT CITY — Michele Hedegpeth said when she last saw her friend Misti Whitfield in early 2013, she was her usual self.
“She was a wonderful person. She was smart. She was funny,” Hedegpeth said.
About two months later, Whitfield, a mother of five, disappeared.
Hedegepeth was among dozens of friends and family members who gathered Saturday in Plant City for a candlelight vigil for Whitfield, who vanished May 2, 2013, in the 5000 block of West Hillsborough Avenue. Whitfield was 35 when she last was seen near Nautical Marine.
Whitfield was an attractive, intelligent woman, family members said, but she didn’t always make the best choices, and was haunted by drug and alcohol addiction.
But there is one thing about which everyone agrees: No matter where she was, she never let more than a day go by without checking on her four daughters and son, who ranged in age from 4 to 17 years old.
“She loved her children. She wasn’t the kind of person to not contact her children,” friend Marie Manning said.
The gathering in McCall Park was held to both mark the anniversary of Whitfield’s disappearance and keep the case in front of the public.
“We as a family get down and we get up. We cry and we pray. But one thing we don’t do is give up hope,” said stepdad Mel Ardelean.
Ardelean said Whitfield likely is dead, and the best he can hope for is to find her body. The Tampa Police Department classifies Whitfield as a missing person but police Detective Scott Bullard said, “the proof that she’s not alive is great.”
Bullard said he learned Whitfield had an argument with an acquaintance the day she disappeared. And there’s an indication she may have tried to get a ride from Hillsborough Avenue to the Plant City area.
He doesn’t know for sure if she made it out of Tampa.
He has reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance tape, and conducted hundreds of interviews that sometimes have raised more questions than yielded answers.
“There are a lot of people pointing fingers in different directions,” he said.
Bullard said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility she was killed in an accident or had a drug overdose and whoever was with her panicked and hid her body.
He appealed for anyone with knowledge of the case to come forward.
“If it was an accident, call me and let me know. Whatever happened, just let me know,” the detective said.
The Rev. Daniel Middlebrooks, who offered a prayer for Whitfield, said it was fitting that the vigil was held the day before Mother’s Day.
He said everyone should pause to “remember her on Mother’s Day and to remember how precious life is.”
Anyone with any information may call the Tampa Police Department at (813) 231-6130. For anonymous tips, call Crimestoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS.