Unsolved mystery

Woman's body is found in charred ruins of home. A life of struggle ends. Police, suspecting foul play, seek answers.


Alachua County Sheriff's forensic officers and Alachua County Fire Rescue investigators are seen at Wende Ellinger's burned mobile home.

DAVID MASSEY/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 1:17 a.m.
In better times more than a decade ago, Wende Ellinger was a young bride living in Alachua County with the man she had once dated as a teenager.
More than a decade later, the promise of a happy married life had faded and times had grown harder for the Memphis native.
The couple divorced in 2003. Her two daughters and son had been removed from her home and placed by social services with a grandparent after complaints about the condition of the household and the care the children received.
Ellinger faced eviction for delinquent payments from her mobile home and she had recently lost her job with an insurance company.
"She was struggling," said Ellinger's father, Ted Pierce of Hillsborough County. "She was bearing up under everything that she was dealing with."
But Pierce said he also believed his 34-year-old daughter was doing her best to cope and try to move forward with her life. "She was glad that she was trying to be self-sufficient."
Pierce last saw his eldest daughter the weekend of March 12.
"I had gone up to Gainesville to pick up Wende and the kids," he said. He took them back to his home where relatives got together to celebrate the birth of another child in the family belonging to Ellinger's 30-year-old sister.
He drove Ellinger and her children to Alachua County on Sunday night.
Five days later, her body was discovered inside her burning Kanapaha Highlands mobile home, which became hers after the divorce. And what at first seemed to be a tragic, accidental fire quickly turned into a murder investigation.
"There were some injuries that were not consistent with fire injuries. Flags were raised at that time. These were not self-inflicted injuries," said Dale Buffenmyer, the lead detective and one of three on the case for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.
Shortly after midnight on March 18, a neighbor spotted smoke coming from Ellinger's double-wide mobile home at 10207 SW 84th Ave.
The fire's intensity stopped anyone from getting inside, Buffenmyer said. And a vehicle was spotted speeding away from the area. It turned out to be someone racing to try and get help.
The blaze that gutted the single-story building hindered the search for evidence by investigators. A determination on how the fire started is still pending, Buffenmyer said.
But, the detective said, "It's suspicious based on the timing of everything," referring to Ellinger's injuries and when the fire occurred.
The day before her death, Ellinger had been at the Gainesville Ale House, 3950 Archer Road, during the evening hours of March 16 and the early morning hours of March 17. The investigation showed Ellinger made it home and was at her residence that evening.
"We believe she was home alone on the evening of the 17th. She talked to friends on the phone," Buffenmyer said.
About two hours after the call, a neighbor reported seeing the fire at the mobile home.
The detective didn't elaborate on Ellinger's injuries or on a cause of death, saying the final autopsy report hasn't been completed.
The fire made it difficult to determine if any of Ellinger's possessions were taken. "There was a melted TV, a stereo and computer games, things a typical burglar would take," Buffenmyer said. "We don't think it was a break-in for the purpose of obtaining property."
And, although investigators continue to ask for help in the case and have made no arrests, Buffenmyer said, "We're looking at some good suspects."
Investigators have spoken to Ellinger's ex-husband, James W. Ellinger, as well as "many others," Buffenmyer said. Detectives are looking at "multiple people of interest" in the case, according to the Sheriff's Office.
James W. Ellinger, who is listed as an Alachua County resident in court records, could not be reached for comment about the case of Wende Ellinger's death.
The couple had been through their share of problems.
Pierce said they separated several years ago but reunited and soon after started their family.
The two had known each other for years, starting when they lived in the same neighborhood in Pembroke Pines, he said.
After her marriage, Pierce said his daughter had attended some nursing classes in the Alachua County area. It didn't pan out into a career, however. "The marriage and just building that life took precedence."
Court records show a series of accusations back and forth between the pair in later years. In court documents prior to finalizing the divorce, James Ellinger questioned the quality of care the children were receiving and Wende Ellinger's "erratic behavior," noting she had been prescribed medication for diagnosed bipolar disorder.
Meanwhile, Wende Ellinger had filed several cases for violating an injunction for protection against domestic violence, court records show, although all of them were later dropped. And there had been problems with child support payments, Wende Ellinger's father said.
Pierce said his daughter had dated since her divorce but she wasn't involved in any long-term relationships at the time.
"Over the past year, she had had a certain amount of freedom that she didn't have before to begin dating and begin socializing as a single person," Pierce said.
And he knew of no plans for her to leave the area since the custody of the children remained in question. The state, he said, basically took the children away from both parents because of the "ongoing spat" between them. "They were both going through the process of trying to reacquire them," he said.
"She was active in the church up there and had a circle of friends," he said.
Neighbors remember Wende Ellinger as a "nice girl," and say they hadn't seen anything suspicious at her home.
Pierce said he doesn't know what happened to his daughter. Logic, however, points to someone she knew as being involved in her death.
"Unless you just throw in a maniac coming in off the street, you almost have to assume that it would be someone that she knew," Pierce said. "The likelihood that someone just came, a total stranger singled out her house, is more far-fetched than someone that she knew coming and going from there."
Buffenmyer wouldn't eliminate the possibility a stranger attacked the woman but also said that in most murder cases, the victim usually knows the offender.
"We're moving forward, and we're hoping on some good results," he said. However, he also noted, "We have a lot of unanswered questions."
The reward for information leading to an arrest increased last week to $9,000. Anyone with details is asked to call the Sheriff's Office at (352) 955-1818 or Crime Stoppers at (352) 372-7867.
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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