Melba Miller didn't know that when she spoke with her daughter, Deanna Stires, on Christmas Eve, or sent her the text message the following day on Christmas Day, that it would be the last time she'd contact her.
"She texted me back," Miller said, who lives in Rochester, N.Y. "Never in a million years did I ever imagine I'd get the phone call that my daughter was dead."
Stires, 18, was reported missing Jan. 1, and was found dead Jan. 18 in Levy County just north of Hernando, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Stires was discovered by a hunter in a wooded area east of Otter Creek, and late Sunday an autopsy was completed by the state medical examiner's office in Gainesville, according to Lt. Scott Tummond of the Criminal Investigations Division at the Levy County Sheriff's Office.
The investigation remains open, and Hernando and Levy detectives are working together to determine the cause of death.
Betty Erhard, who formerly ran for Brooksville City Council Seat 2, is Stires' aunt. She said Stires attended Parrott Middle School in Hernando County, and worked to complete her general education degree. Stires worked at Daylight Donuts on Ayres Road in Brooksville for a time, Erhard said. She learned of her niece's death Jan. 20.
"She was a very loving, generous, kind, compassionate person," said Erhard. "She loved to make people smile. It's just tough to be a teenager in this day and age. It's not like when I was growing up."
Erhard said Stires used to babysit often for another aunt, and spent a lot of time with the family. Erhard said Stires' mother, Melba, lives out of state, and that Stires lived with her father in Brooksville until she was reported missing Jan. 1.
"My brother, he's grieving right now, and I haven't even personally spoken with him other than texting him, and asking him questions about the autopsy results, and all he said is, 'All I know is she's not coming back,'" Erhard said. "I can't even begin to imagine the pain of what it must feel like to lose a child."
Later, Erhard's brother texted her, "To me, she was the greatest gift a father could ask for."
"We really don't know anything other than what the detectives have told my brother. …," Erhard said. "We've all been worried about her. I had the family at my house for Christmas dinner, and she wasn't present."
Erhard said that the recent death of her father, Barry Stires, who was Stires' grandfather, was very difficult on the entire family.
"She was going through many struggles, and the biggest one of all was when my father passed away," Erhard said. "She took it the hardest."
It was after the loss of her grandfather that Stires' life became rocky, Erhard said; she intersected with the wrong people, and repercussions unraveled in the courtroom.
But Erhard said she hopes Stires' story will have an impact on other kids Stires' age, and help them realize that life is precious and short, and to be careful who you hang around with, and associate with.
"She was a sweet niece, and a beautiful person and a loving granddaughter, and a precious daughter to her parents," Erhard said. "She was deeply loved by all."
Miller said Stires was enrolled in a certified nurse assistant program at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"That's what she wanted to do was help as many people as she could, and maybe that's her calling," Miller said, adding that when her grandfather passed away she watched doctors and nurses try to revive him, and save his life.
"I don't know if those were turning points in her life to become a (certified nurse assistant), and help as many people as she could, but even before that she's always been that way," Miller said.
Miller said losing her daughter is the worst pain she has felt – like her heart is crushing – and wants justice for her daughter.
"I want people to know that she was taken away, and nobody should ever have to endure no matter what she did, nobody ever deserves to be taken like that," Miller said. "I don't want her to have died in vain, and people convicted of murder, they do time in prison, and they get out. Well, my daughter is never coming back."
"I want them to get the maximum penalty," she said. "They took her life. They shouldn't be allowed to live theirs."
Anyone with information is asked to call Lt. Scott Tummond at (352) 486-5111 or people can leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers at 1(877) 349-8477.