As the sun peeked out from behind a cloud about 8 a.m. Saturday, Donna Scharrett was wide awake with 11 volunteers preparing breakfast for a cause she never envisioned herself being part of sixth months earlier.
The pancake breakfast fundraiser at the Church of Isles on Indian Rocks Beach honored Kelly Rothwell, 35, a former St. Pete police cadet and resident of Indian Rocks Beach who disappeared March 12.
For six months, Scharrett has fought to keep authorities and the public focused on finding her best friend.
“The six-month mark was more difficult than I thought it would be,” said Scharrett, 45, a resident of Palm Harbor. “Gravity just hit me. Six months is a long time to not have any answers.”
About 30 people attended the fundraiser Scharrett organized to raise money and awareness for The CUE Center for Missing Persons, a nonprofit organization based in North Carolina that helps find missing people.
Scharrett last saw Rothwell after meeting her for lunch at a Chili’s restaurant on U.S. 19 in Clearwater. Before leaving, Rothwell told her she was on her way to end her relationship with her boyfriend, David Perry, a 46-year-old retired corrections officer, with whom she shared a condo on Indian Rocks Beach.
Although detectives have no viable leads, Detective Michael Bailey, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office lead homicide detective on the Rothwell case, said Perry remains the main suspect. On the night Rothwell went missing, Perry moved out of the condo and to his hometown of Elmira, NY, and he refuses to speak to authorities and is unwilling to cooperate, Bailey said.
“He wouldn’t even give a timeline to an attorney; that’s how far removed he is,” said Bailey, adding that Perry will not make a statement.
“Obviously we’re still trying to pursue this, but it’s very difficult to do without any positive leads.” Even though detectives continue to collect evidence, they hoped to have had more leads by now. “That makes the case that much more difficult. That’s where it becomes problematic,” Bailey said.
Bailey said that based on his experience and the fact that Rothwell had no history of being flighty while in the police academy, he believes she is deceased.
“I can say comfortably that this is what has gone on. She wouldn’t have given up on her family and friends,” Bailey said.
At the fundraiser, friends of Rothwell sold T-shirts and wristbands with the slogan “Bring Kelly Rothwell Home.” They served $5 breakfasts to guests until 11 a.m. About $400 was raised, which will go to CUE, whose members will travel to the Tampa Bay area for a rally and a balloon release on behalf of Rothwell on Oct. 27.
“My hope is that we recover Kelly Rothwell,” Scharrett said, “I know it’s not going to be her body. It’s going to be her remains. But that’s all I want.”
Each month since March, Scharrett has held candlelight vigils on Indian Rocks Beach in front of Rothwell’s former condo.
Jeannie Poe, 55, a resident of Dunedin and a friend of Rothwell’s, said she was surprised that more of Rothwell’s friends from the police academy had not attended previous gatherings or Saturday’s fundraiser.
“I thought honestly we’d have more support from the local authorities," she said. "Honestly, where are the cadets?”
Poe said she felt like Rothwell’s case was being “pushed under the rug.” She asked what authorities are doing to further her case.
“They need to let us know if we can support them,” Poe said. “As a community, we would want to know. We want to help.”
Mary Penza, 47, a resident of Tampa who was also a friend of Rothwell’s and attended the breakfast, said she didn’t think Rothwell’s search would reach the sixth-month mark; she thought the case would be resolved in “maybe a month or two.”
“We just want to bring her home and see that the person who did it brought to justice,” Penza said.