Phyllis Ward lived on the Boise Bench for 35 years and felt safe there, even after being widowed in 2003, family members say.
The independent 74-year-old, whose interests included being an avid gardener, spent much of her time outside tending a sprawling yard. She loved flowers, particularly zinnias.
"She'd be out in the garden in the morning and night. She'd irrigate every week," said Jennifer Holley, 39, one of Ward's three grown children.
On July 23 last year, neighbors saw smoke coming from Ward's klinker brick home at 5824 Randolph Drive. The fire apparently started early in the morning.
She'd quit smoking six months earlier, but those who knew Ward well feared that she might have been the victim of an accidental fire.
"She'd been a smoker for so many years," Holley said. "I could only imagine that she was smoking in bed when I heard about the fire. I couldn't fathom any other reason for the fire."
One of Ward's oldest friends, an 81-year-old neighbor named Millie, also worried that her friend had been smoking in bed.
Ward's body was found in the bedroom, badly burned. But an autopsy revealed that Ward had been killed by multiple blows to the head before the fire destroyed her bedroom.
Ward's family and friends were blindsided.
"I just didn't believe it. Who?" said Millie, the neighbor. "Phyllis didn't have any enemies."
Millie said she still feels safe in her neighborhood, but since Ward's death she's installed an alarm system and pays closer attention when her dogs alert her to strangers.
"I used to irrigate at night - now I don't," she said.
Ward's death is one of five unsolved murders in Boise over the past 15 years, and the motive remains a mystery.
Holley said she is unaware of any valuables missing from her mother's home.
Investigators have been tight-lipped about their pursuit of a suspect and declined to comment for this article.
A few weeks after Ward's death, police asked tipsters who had called earlier to call back so detectives could speak to them directly.
A second fire was set in Ward's house a couple of weeks after her death, according to family and a neighbor. Holley said police identified a suspect in the second fire, unrelated to Ward's death and the first fire.
"They think he saw an opportunity to steal," Holley said.
HAPPY HOMEMAKER, TEACHER
Ward was petite, about 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and known for a boisterous laugh. She taught at McKinley Elementary School in the 1980s, and was spontaneous and active, taking ballroom dancing classes in recent years.
She was a good cook and had craft skills that rivaled Martha Stewart, said Jeff Holley, her elder son.
"She really got into the whole crafting thing and making her home beautiful," he said. "Her home and belongings were a huge part of her identity. She loved her stuff."
The kitchen table was her "command center," Jeff said, where she would run her day, her pens, pencils, scissors, calendars and address book nearby. A 13-inch TV in the kitchen was usually on, tuned in to a classic movie.
It wasn't uncommon for her to leave her house doors open, making it easy to move between the front and back gardens.
She was a deft seamstress, making clothing and decorations.
"She knew how to take everything to the next level," said Jeff, describing the Star Wars decorations she made for his boyhood bedroom.
One of the students in Ward's third-grade class at McKinley recalled her fondly in an online memorial.
"I still remember making a huge paper mangrove tree in our classroom," Janice Weesner wrote.
Ward was a collector of antiques, Oriental rugs, porcelain dolls, Halloween bats and Santa Clauses.
"Anything that anyone collects, she had," Jennifer Holley said.
She was looking for new treasures the weekend she died. She and her other son, Spence, had gone to an estate sale, and Jennifer spoke to her that weekend.
"She called me to see if I wanted some books - old books," she recalled. "She was going to go back to the sale Sunday."
Jennifer declined the books. At the time, she was working on plans to take her mother on a trip to Seattle as a surprise for her birthday.
MOVING ON, WITHOUT RESOLUTION
Ward was last seen about 3 p.m. on July 22, 2012, police said. That's when Spence left her after the estate sale.
About five months after his mother's death, Spence, a former Navy man, had his probation revoked on a 2007 felony DUI conviction. He is at the St. Anthony Work Camp and won't be eligible for parole until February 2014, state records show.
Jennifer Holley lives in Boise and works for the Idaho Humanities Council. She feared for her own safety for several months.
"I was in touch with police all the time," she said. "I didn't want to be outside."
She said detectives check in with her monthly to see how she's doing, and she's still in counseling.
Jeff Holley, a California real estate agent, said his mother's death left him feeling unsafe as well.
"We put in a new alarm system," he said. "This kind of thing rocks you to the core."
The Holley children have cleaned up the smoke damage in the house and are finishing renovations. They plan to sell the house.
"It's familiar, but now it's not home. It's not a place that's comfortable, or that I find is an anchor anymore," Jeff Holley said.
They have yet to deal with their mother's possessions, now in storage, other than to sell some items they knew they would not keep. Thirty-six bins of fabric sold to a local quilter at a garage sale.
"Every stitch of fabric, I know, represented a dream for mom - a dress, a pair of slacks, or an apron she wanted to make," Jeff Holley said. "I knew that was getting carried on by this random woman who was a quilter. That felt really good."
Katy Moeller: 377-6413