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Fire kills woman
Witnesses: Victim seemed troubled hours before blaze


Published May 22. 2003 8:30AM

BY AUSTIN L. MILLER
STAFF WRITER


OCALA - It seems something was weighing on Gwendolyn "Gwen" Bowen Thompson's mind, hours before a fire claimed her life in her home shortly before midnight on Tuesday night.

Between noon and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, a maintenance worker for the Oak Tree Village Apartments, 4037 N.W. Blitchton Road, said he saw Thompson's dog wandering the streets. When he went to check on her, her front door was wide open and she looked dazed, as she sat in a chair. He asked her some questions but she didn't answer. Thompson then went to the manager's office for a few hours.

Several hours later, she went to a neighbor and asked if she could use his phone. She spoke to someone on the phone and left the neighbor's home crying. It would be the last time she would be seen alive.

A day after Ocala Fire-Rescue officials removed her lifeless body from her burning mobile home, police, the state Fire Marshal's office and fire-rescue officials are still investigating how the fire began.

According to police spokesman Russ Kern, there were no signs of foul play. Fire-Rescue spokesman Wendell Rora said Thompson "was exposed to smoke and heat."

"We're waiting for the autopsy report and for the insurance company to complete their investigation before we can determine what started the fire," Rora said.

Several neighbors in the community said Thompson had cancer. Those same residents said she mostly kept to herself.

"She lived here for about two weeks," said Rodney Green, a maintenance employee at the complex.

Linda Shepherd, who lives a few yards from Thompson's home, said she saw the 49-year-old woman earlier Tuesday.

"It looked liked she had just come from her chemotherapy, and she didn't look too good," Shepherd said.

Shepherd said later that night, while putting her daughter to bed, she saw flashing lights outside.

"When I went outside, all you could see was smoke coming from everywhere," she said.

A neighbor who called 911, said Thompson left his home some time between 8 and 9 p.m., and he went to bed at about 10 p.m. He said he was awakened about an hour-and-a-half later by the sound of a door being slammed.

"I knew it was her door because it shook my house," said the neighbor who did not want to be identified. "I woke up, smelled smoke and immediately went next door."

The neighbor said he called authorities, but by then, it may have been too late.

"They were great and they tried everything," he said. "I don't think anyone knew she was inside there because her car was not in the parking lot and I saw her walking down the street after she used my phone."

Rora said the fire produced a lot of smoke.

"Firefighters went in the first time and found nobody. They went in a second time, and that was when they found Thompson lying across a chair in her bedroom," he said.

Austin L. Miller can be reached at austin.miller@starbanner.com.