The sky was gray and the air heavy with humidity as the words came out of Mel Ardelean’s mouth.
More than 200 had gathered for a candlelight vigil June 4, at the Train Depot in Historic Downtown Plant City, to offer prayers and support for Ardelean’s stepdaughter, Misti Whitfield, 35, who has been missing since May 2. They came hopeful that she still may be found alive. But, at the podium, before the candles were lit, Ardelean shared the heartbreaking news his family still is trying to swallow.
“The case has taken a more ominous turn; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you,” he said. “The fact of the matter is Misti has not been found. It has taken an ominous turn toward, unfortunately, a homicide.”
Just two-and-one-half hours earlier, also under the Train Depot’s canopy, Ardelean and private investigator Brad Sparkman in a press conference said they believe Whitfield had been murdered the night she disappeared. She was last seen at about midnight May 2, at Nautical Marine, 5525 W. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa. Through interviews, Sparkman said he learned Whitfield had two physical altercations with a man named Richard Corn, who also is the last known person to see Whitfield alive.
Through his investigation, Sparkman has identified three people of interest in the case — including an individual he believes murdered Whitfield. Sparkman would not confirm whether one of those people of interest is Corn.
“This is one case I hope I’m wrong on; I do not believe that I am,” he said. “I believe we do have one individual that committed murder, that murdered Misti Whitfield. It was calculated, and it was with malice and forethought. All of that information has been turned over to the Tampa Police Department.
“I have no professional reason to believe Misti Whitfield is alive,” Sparkman said.
Now that Sparkman’s investigation is complete, he hopes the Tampa Police Department will arrest the three individuals by the end of the week. Sparkman also said his agency is offering $25,000 to any individual who will lead him or the Tampa Police Department to Whitfield’s body.
Ardelean and his wife, Sharon, own Cuzzins Bar, in Historic Downtown Plant City. They realized Whitfield was missing on Mother’s Day, when she did not call. The Ardeleans have custody of one of Whitfield’s five children, and she called every few days to talk.
Ardelean said he and his wife have been working to keep their grandson focused on school.
“The grandchild we have living with us asked us if there was anything he could do,” he said. “We just told him that his mother would want him to graduate from the sixth grade. ... So, we just asked him to focus on his school, and believe it or not, the boy has actually been doing that. ... We’re proud of him.”
Despite the sobering news, Ardelean thanked the residents who attended the vigil and credited Whitfield’s friends for aiding the investigation.
“You’ve brought this case to this point to where we can get a conclusion for this family,” he said. “Plant City does not like its sons or daughters manipulated in this way, whether it’s drugs or prostitution. Plant City refuses to let (its) sons or daughters go away from here and be manipulated in this way.
“That’s why you’re here; that’s why you did what you did,” Ardelean said. “Keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing. ... The family is braced for whatever happens. We will not stop until Misti is brought home. One way or the other.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].