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Daughter, friends remember slain Hernando park ranger, a ‘bright, burning ball of fire’

Mitzi Babb could spend hours freeing a fawn ensnared in a bramble. She rescued stray cats even as they left scratches on her arms and hands. She stopped her daughter from killing the spiders that infiltrated their house in the woods.

"This is their home, too," she’d say.

Babb also seemed drawn to people who needed help or direction or a kind word, said her daughter, Constance Harris. Harris thought of her mother as a survivor — someone who endured poverty and pain, who wanted to give her daughter a better life, who wore thrift-store clothes so she could afford to buy Harris nice outfits for school.

"Despite the fact that she had all these broken pieces, she did her best to keep them together, and I think it helped her to help other people," Harris said.

But Harris believes someone took advantage of this empathy, one of the qualities that made Babb "this bright, burning ball of fire." On June 21, Babb’s boyfriend, Jeffrey Morrison, turned himself in to authorities and told them he’d killed the 43-year-old park ranger and dumped her body into a Georgia waterway.

"She always said that she fixed people," Harris, 20, said. "And I guess she thought she could fix this — whatever he is."

• • •

Morrison, despite a confession recorded in a report from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, has yet to be charged in connection with Babb’s death.

Last month, a sheriff’s captain in Camden County, Georgia, where Babb’s body was found, said the 42-year-old would face charges, but that law enforcement agencies still had to determine who had jurisdiction. That task may be complicated by Morrison’s apparent criss-crossing of Florida and Georgia in the days surrounding Babb’s death.

On June 20, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office announced Babb was missing. She was last seen the previous afternoon at Withlacoochee State Forest’s Croom Motorcycle Area, where she worked and lived as resident park ranger.

Over the previous few days, she had talked to friends and family as usual. She fretted to Harris about a friend’s missing cat. And on Father’s Day, she texted Russell Groover, a local author who’d become like family since Babb and Harris moved to Florida in 2008.

"You’re the best," Babb wrote.

"Thank you, daughter," Groover, 81, replied. "You are a trial at times, but thank you for everything."

"Who, me?" Babb wrote back. "I’m an angel."

On June 21, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said it was looking for Morrison.

That same day, the sheriff’s office in Peach County, in central Georgia, issued a warrant for Morrison’s arrest. That morning, deputies said, Morrison broke into his sister-in-law’s home there, stole two guns and set a fire in the living room.

At around 6:50 p.m. that night, Morrison pulled into an agricultural inspection station in Hamilton County in north Florida. There, according to an arrest report, he told a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services officer he had committed burglary and arson and that he’d killed Babb and "dumped her body over a bridge." Then he asked for an attorney.

The next day, June 22, detectives in southeast Georgia’s Camden County found Babb’s body floating in a waterway. The Camden County coroner said a cause of death has been determined, but because the investigation is ongoing, it hasn’t been released publicly.

The Tampa Bay Times reached out to several of Morrison’s relatives and his ex-wife, all of whom declined to comment or didn’t return calls.

Groover met Morrison twice in the few months Babb dated him, he said. The couple met through mutual friends — Groover said they ran in similarly artsy and outdoorsy circles. Morrison struck him as intelligent, but no match for Babb.

"You have no idea," Groover remembered telling him. "You may be intelligent, but you will never hold a candle to her."

Morrison told Groover he had struggled with alcoholism, Groover said. Babb told her daughter that Morrison was distraught over the death of his brother last year.

Harris, who studies fashion merchandising at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, never met Morrison in person, she said, only over the phone. During their conversations, he repeated one thing so often, it annoyed Harris.

He called his relationship with Babb "a perfect storm."

• • •

Last Saturday, on a warm and cloudy afternoon in Bristol, Tennessee, the people who loved Mitzi Babb gathered under a gazebo filled with flowers and photo collages. They dressed comfortably in shorts and floral-print dresses. Mark Fitch, a close friend of Babb’s from the forest service, recalled the scene.

Some of Babb’s friends, veteran musicians, played the songs she always requested. A woman with a guitar offered the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, a song she introduced as Babb’s favorite.

"Faith has been broken and tears must be cried," the last verse goes. "Let’s do some living after we die."

Babb grew up poor in east Tennessee, where she first found comfort in the woods. Later, as a single mom, she worked her way through restaurants, staying afloat on tips.

Bristol was her de-facto hometown, and on Saturday, a violinist led a procession through its streets, ending at a pub Babb frequented when she lived there.

The connection between Babb’s different circles of friends would have delighted her, said her friend Fitch.

"Knowing her so well, it just all came together," he said

Her daughter organized the memorial. That she planned it even while beset by grief reflects the passion and fight she inherited from her mother, friends said. Groover called Harris "Mitzi’s heritage."

People tell her that handling the pain will get easier, Harris said, but the void left by her mother’s death seems wider every day.

"I just keep thinking I’m going to wake up," she said, "and I’m going to be able to call her and say, ‘You’re never going to believe this nightmare I had.’"

The best memories of her mother come one after the other, flashes of kindness and contentment.

True Blood binge-watches and an excellent eggplant Parmesan. Babb coming home from work, smiling and covered in sweat.

Her massive vocabulary and the "poetic, Shakespearean" responses she’d pull from thin air, even given the most mundane questions.

The American Girl doll Harris had wanted as a child — Babb couldn’t afford it then, but gave one to Harris for her 17th birthday, so Harris could pass it along to her own daughter, if she has one.

And the childhood bedtime story they always returned to, "Where the Wild Things Are." They especially loved its ending, when the hero returns from the wilderness to find home the same as ever and dinner, waiting, still warm.

Reach Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com, and follow @JackHEvans. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

RELATED:Hernando ranger’s boyfriend tells police he killed her and ‘dumped her body over a bridge’

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