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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Darkness descended on Peggy Florence's modest Clearwater, Fla., home, as she watched her son, Bo, suffer a slow, painful cancer death.

The last six months of his 44 years were spent in hospice care at her home. He died Nov. 3, 2010.

Later that month, Florence's home was bursting with life, when her granddaughter, Lacey Spears, arrived for Thanksgiving with her son, Garnett, eight days from his second birthday. They spent the holiday in the Gulf Coast neighborhood of mostly single-story homes dotted with rock gardens and palm trees.

Within months, Spears packed up her things in Decatur, Ala. — the only town she'd known in her 23 years — buckled Garnett into her brand-new Hyundai Santa Fe and headed south to a new beginning. Ten hours away, an ideal arrangement was waiting: Grandma would have companionship and get to pamper her granddaughter and great-grandson; Spears and Garnett would turn the page.

Darkness gave way to light, if only for a short time.

PART ONE: Boy's unexplained death reveals mom's lies
PART TWO: For boy who died, two fathers — one real, one imagined

Those first few months in Clearwater brought a lot of change to the home, beyond the decibel level: Florence, 68, had the back porch walled in and turned into a room for Garnett, filling it with Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia and a child's drum set he loved to bang on.

Ken and Rebecca Paulen lived next door.

Years later, when Florence learned late one night that Garnett was dying, it was Ken Paulen who drove her to the airport; the Paulens are middle-of-the-night-help kind of neighbors.

"He got almost more toys than Toys 'R' Us," said Rebecca Paulen. "The child lacked for nothing, absolutely nothing. (Lacey's) world revolved around him."

It didn't take long for Garnett, who loved trains, to discover the electric trains Ken Paulen set up for when his grandkids visited.

"He'd play with it. He'd say, 'Mr. Ken! Mr. Ken! Come play with me!' " Paulen said. "Every time I'd see him, the kid was full of life. He was a very playful, active child."

Spears would drive Florence on errands and shopping trips. She worked as a babysitter and met mothers who sent their children to the local Suncoast Waldorf school, like the one Garnett later would attend in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.

Spears and Garnett would go to her favorite place, Honeymoon Island, a magnificent stretch of beach a short drive away. On the beach at Honeymoon Island, Garnett loved to build sand castles.

"You've never seen a child so taken care of. Lacey was doting, very," Rebecca Paulen said.

Her husband agreed: "She wasn't interested in dating or anything like that. She was totally devoted to him."

Garnett would drive his electric tractor, pulling stuffed animals in a wagon. He drew chalk pictures on the sidewalk, set up pinwheels in the rock garden.

"He was always sticking pinwheels into the ground outside," Rebecca Paulen said.

The Paulens said Spears was into healthy eating, bought Garnett specialty foods, organic stuff. Still, Rebecca Paulen remembered that the change in scenery from Alabama to Florida didn't end the recurring ear infections that had landed him in Alabama hospitals in his first couple of years. Her husband recalled that Garnett had a tube in at least one of his ears.

The Paulens described a happy life for Garnett, who had just turned 2 when they arrived and was just about 4 when they headed north to Chestnut Ridge and the Fellowship Community.

A month before he died, Garnett and his mother made a return trip to the spot where they spent so many happy days, to Florence's home.

"Garnett liked purple and owls," Rebecca Paulen said, so they filled his own little Christmas tree with purple owls.

The story of Lacey and Garnett Spears is full of mystery, one investigators are working to unravel. Spears has denied doing anything to harm her son. Her lawyer, David Sachs, has declined to comment beyond stating that his client is "a mother in mourning."

Hearing the Paulens describe their time in Clearwater raises one of the story's most perplexing questions: Why would Spears leave what seemed like an idyllic situation and head north, where she knew no one?

PART THREE: Red flags in, out of hospital before boy's death
LIVE CHAT: Thursday at 7 p.m. EDT, @lohud

A Facebook post June 28, 2012, provides a window into her mind at a moment when someone, it is not clear who, questioned Spears' parenting. Garnett was 3½ when she wrote: "No my child does not eat off plastic, have his food cooked in a microwave, play with plastic toys that light up and talk ... He isn't vaccinated, doesn't follow western medicine ... No I won't take his pacifier until HE IS READY TO LET IT GO!!! ... At the end of the day he is loved, natured, thriving, happy and always put 1st!!!"

Facebook friends rallied to her side, with 32 "Likes" and comments ranging from: "THAT'S RIGHT HONEY!" to "G is being raised by an amazing person!"

While Facebook gave Spears a platform and validation for her parenting choices, some posts led others to tune out.

Says Riley Vaughn, a onetime friend from Decatur: "All of a sudden she was talking about when Garnett was sick, she didn't believe in antibiotics, she didn't want to take him to a doctor, that she believed in holistic medicine. You could kind of tell she wasn't getting him the help he needed if he really was as sick as she claimed he was."

Within five months of writing that angry Facebook post, Spears relocated to Rockland County, N.Y., to the secluded Fellowship Community in Chestnut Ridge, where a live-off-the-land philosophy is followed.

She learned about the Fellowship, in part, from one of the Clearwater families she babysat for: Jak and Nicole Plihal, whose three children she watched.

Nicole Plihal, 43, has had a long relationship with Waldorf education centers, in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Clearwater. She and Jak don't send their three children to the Suncoast Waldorf School in Clearwater, they home-school them; but Nicole Plihal had good things to tell Spears about the Waldorf system and The Fellowship Community in particular.

The pre-K-to-grade 12 Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge is one of more than 900 Waldorf schools worldwide. What sets it apart from other Waldorf schools is that it sits on a 140-acre campus that includes the Sunbridge Institute (a Waldorf education teacher training center for adults), a natural food co-op and a home for the elderly, known as The Fellowship. There is an emphasis on community among generations.

"I may have said to Lacey that if I was a single mom with a child, this is a place I might end up," Plihal said. "It was just something I mentioned to her, and she decided to look into it. She did her own research. She ended up there."

The decision was not a snap one, Plihal said. Spears took a few months to do the research on the Fellowship and Green Meadow. She was interviewed over the phone by the Fellowship/Waldorf and asked lots of questions, to see whether the move made sense.

"Waldorf called me," Plihal said. "They told me, 'Lacey's considering moving here. We want to ask a couple questions and see if she is a good fit.' "

Fellowship offered Spears something rare, Plihal said.

"How many people are going to help her support her child?" Plihal asked rhetorically. "Being a single mom is scary all on your own."

Spears moved to The Fellowship shortly after Superstorm Sandy; 14 months later, Garnett was dead. And his mother, whose Facebook page was flooded with prayers as she documented her son's excruciating final days, now finds herself being investigated in his death.

"She was in my home taking care of my three children," Nicole Plihal said. "I did not see anything off. She cared deeply for her son. If there was something majorly off, we would have seen it."

Jak Plihal, Nicole's husband, spoke of Garnett's death as Spears' second tragedy: "She lost her son. She lost her husband," he said, noting Spears would speak "very lovingly" of her husband, who Spears told them was a police officer who died in a car accident.

"She shared details with me," Nicole Plihal said. "I have no reason to disbelieve anything she said. She said it was a car accident, and she did say he was a police officer."

Some of Spears' other friends reported that they never saw the police officer the Plihals heard about — Spears' "soulmate" named Blake — leading them to conclude he was a figment of her fertile imagination.

Spears' hometown friends wondered about the move north.

Kathy Hammack said she could understand Spears moving from Alabama to Florida to live with her grandmother. But when she heard of the move to Chestnut Ridge to attend Green Meadow Waldorf, she bristled. Hammack has been to New York with her truck-driver husband and was less than impressed.

"I'm an Alabama person. I have no use for New York. They're rude people," she said.

Another friend said the move took guts.

From all appearances online, the move was a good one. Facebook friends saw the happiest of families: In October, there's a photo of Garnett on his first day of school, standing in front of a chalkboard announcing his favorite color (red) and his favorite food (bananas and yogurt), his blue plaid backpack at the ready.

In another, titled "Breakfast by Candlelight," he sits at a table, pancakes in front of him, his trusty owl cup next to his plate.

That was posted Jan. 11.

Twelve days later, Garnett was dead.

Live chat

Join The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News reporters Shawn Cohen and Peter D. Kramer for a behind-the-scenes look at "Losing Garnett the Great." In a live chat Thursday, March 27, at 7 p.m., they will answer reader questions and share insights into their reporting process. Ask your questions in advance by tweeting: @lohud.

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