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Friday, September 30, 2022

Staying Strong: UF student moves forward after family tragedy

<p>Sarah Lambert, 21, talking to friends before the Victimes of Domestic Abuse for Hope on Oct. 11, 2013.</p>

Sarah Lambert, 21, talking to friends before the Victimes of Domestic Abuse for Hope on Oct. 11, 2013.

She had waited five days, and this time, the deputy had news.

Sarah Lambert stood in a circle grasping the hands of her sisters and family friends.

We found a body, the deputy told them. 

She had white knuckles now. They all did.

It’s Kim.

His words were a blow, knocking the wind out of Sarah for just a moment. Then, she didn’t have time to feel. She had to comfort her sisters and listen to the deputies and get everyone ready to head to the station for more interviews.

The only thing louder than her youngest sister’s sobs were her own thoughts, looping over and over again: How am I going to get through this?

   

Sarah’s mother, Kim Lindsey, was murdered by her ex-husband almost a year ago. Albert Lambert, Sarah’s father, broke into her house and shot her with a .22-caliber handgun he’d bought weeks before from a pawn shop, according to a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report. He then disposed of her body in a canal after cutting off her head and fingers. When deputies went to arrest him about a week later, they discovered he’d overdosed on pills. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

For Sarah, a 21-year-old UF student, the information didn’t come in a neat paragraph. It was revealed over the course of a week, in visits from deputies, in instinctual hunches, in conversations with family and friends.

On Oct. 28, just before her Introduction to Hispanic Linguistics class, Kim’s co-worker — a fellow nurse at Bak Middle School of the Arts — texted Sarah that her mom hadn’t come into work that morning. 

Then, during class, a text from her uncle saying the same thing. Her hands started to shake. 

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When Sarah tried contacting her mother after class, she got no response. She reached out to her mom’s friends and her two younger sisters — Sofia and Savannah, 18 and 16 then. No one had heard from Kim.

At 5 p.m., she left Gainesville with her boyfriend at the time. By 9, she was at a friend of her mom’s in West Palm Beach. That night, she helped create the Facebook page “Find Kim Lindsey,” which now has about 7,500 likes. She contacted an organization dedicated to finding missing people. She cracked her mom’s email and phone passwords. 

“There was a lot of pressure on me because I am the firstborn,” she said. “They were asking me to make all the major decisions.”

Like organizing a press conference, which the sisters had to shop for since they rushed home from school without packing. Like discussing her youngest sister’s guardianship, in case the search turned bad. Like dealing with her father’s text messages: Are you and your sisters OK? Call me if you need me. I love you.

During that week, she became her mother. She had to.

Kim’s close friend, Karen Dietrick, said they all called her “Little Kim.” 

Karen, 49, had been friends with Kim for about a decade, part of a group of five close-knit moms called the Ya-Yas, after the 1996 book about four lifelong friends titled “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

Karen’s house served as headquarters for the week Kim was missing. Savannah, still in high school, lives with her now, along with Karen’s husband and their daughters.

“Kim would’ve gone to Colombia and rescued my children from rebel forces,” she said. “For me to take on these three girls ... it wasn’t even a question.”

Karen described Kim as “this Texas, cowboy-boot-wearing, I-can-do-anything, tall, blonde, powerful force.”

She married Albert for his passion and charm. But that dissipated over time, and Kim no longer felt like herself around him. Albert, who Karen described as unattractive, heavy and balding, would dig at Kim’s confidence. He threatened her, but no one took him seriously, Karen said. 

Sarah stopped speaking to her father in September 2012. She described him as narcissistic and cruel. During the divorce, he vacationed and went on cruises but still complained about paying her college tuition.

At a divorce-related court hearing on Oct. 25 — three days before Kim was reported missing — Albert Lambert told a judge he’d either “disappear or go to jail” before he paid anything.

When a deputy interviewed Sarah soon after Kim disappeared, he asked if she thought her dad was capable of hurting her mother.

“Some people could be pushed to a point since … it’s such high tension,” she said in a recorded interview. “I think my dad could potentially, but I don’t know if he would.”

Despite the difficult marriage, Kim maintained a sense of humor raising her children. She’d use a squawking rubber chicken to jar Savannah out of bed when she wouldn’t wake up. She’d take out a water gun and squirt it at her daughters in the car for no reason. When the four of them would roll through the Taco Bell drive-thru, they’d practice saying the Mexican dishes in the most hick ways possible: “Fuh-JAI-tuh,” “Kay-suh-DILL-a.” 

That same humor was peppered through the week Kim was missing, even without her. It kept them strong.

Even sitting in the lawyer’s office, discussing Savannah’s guardianship, health care directives and the power of attorney. Even as Sarah wrote her mother’s eulogy. 

On the first day of November, deputies came to Karen’s home with the news that Kim’s decapitated body had been found in Hendry County. 

“I just remember thinking there is literally no decision I can make that can change this,” Sarah recalled. “This is permanent.”

Kim’s family and friends gathered a few days later at a church in West Palm Beach for the memorial service.

Sarah, wearing her mother’s pearl earrings, delivered the eulogy at the standing-room-only service. She warned the audience during the speech that she may “start crying like a 2-year-old.” But her low voice remained strong:

“My name’s Sarah, and Kim was my mom.”

   

Two days after reading her mother’s eulogy, Sarah returned to UF. 

She attended Gator Growl, UF’s Homecoming pep rally, with the tickets she bought before her mother went missing. She read “Anna Karenina,” “Dr. Zhivago” and half of “Lolita” in a week to finish up a Russian literature class.  

With the help of professors offering deadline extensions, she earned straight A’s.

Walking through campus, she’d feel relieved when people wouldn’t recognize her from the press coverage. She’d see friends she hadn’t talked to in months and avoid them. She’d forego nights out for nights in with her phone turned off. 

She wasn’t the girl she was before Oct. 28, a star in “The Sarah Show,” as Karen called it, because her personality commanded a room. And she wasn’t Little Kim, holding the world together by her fingertips with no time to process the loss. 

In those months, she was working to digest what happened and reclaim her place in the world, not as the girl whose father killed her mother and himself. But as the girl who, under those tragic circumstances, learned to live again.

One of the first steps came in January, at a diversity retreat called Gatorship that she’d applied to before Kim’s disappearance. During a segment about race, the retreat split into groups. Sarah didn’t feel much attachment to her Cuban side — her dad’s side. But it was a part of her, and she felt that now more than ever. 

She joined the multiethnic group where, in front of half a dozen people, she revealed her story: that her Hispanic side comes from the man who killed her mother.

The leader called for a moment of silence. The only noise in the room was Sarah trying to stifle her sobs.

Group members came up to her afterward to offer hugs and words of encouragement. And she let them.

As winter turned to spring, Sarah started to regain her footing. 

She chopped off her hair, which used to be down to her waist, and donated it at a cancer cure fundraiser. She went to her classes and hung out with friends. She took up biking. It was easy to pedal when the light was green and stop when the light was red. She didn’t have to think.

One morning in April, she biked in the rain to a physics lecture. The class is mostly underclassmen, but Sarah, a junior at the time and a senior now, had to take it after adding the pre-dental track to her Spanish and linguistics double major.

Much of her parent’s brutal two-and-a-half year divorce was tainted by finances. Her mother had a tough time supporting her daughters on a school nurse salary. Her father, a doctor at a hospital in Okeechobee, didn’t help. Sarah didn’t want money to dictate her life in the same way.

During a class break, she met a friend for lunch. On the mile-long walk to the Plaza of the Americas, she waved to about a dozen people she knew and said bless-yous to sneezing strangers.

At lunch, a member of UF’s skydiving club came by with fliers. 

“Do you want to go skydiving for our birthdays?” Sarah asked her friend.

“No, I’m afraid of heights,” the friend said back.

“So am I. Let’s do it.” 

It was a fun thought, doing something daring and adventurous for her birthday, coming up on April 30. But in reality, the day made her nervous.

She was turning 21. Her mother shared the same birthday and would’ve turned 50.

The pair used to joke about how they would “turn up” for their milestone birthdays, Sarah said. 

As the day grew closer, she felt the uncertainty creep in. How am I going to handle this? How am I going to get through the day?

The year before, her boyfriend threw her a surprise party. Her friends wanted her to count down to midnight with them, but Sarah refused. She wanted to call her mom instead.

This year, Sarah was with her boyfriend again, but it was just them. He baked her a chocolate coconut cake. He sang her happy birthday.

Ten minutes later, Sarah locked herself in the bathroom and cried with her head in her hands. 

“I missed her,” she said.

But she knew the tears would stop. They always did.

As a child, Sarah could never decide what she wanted for her birthday, so she asked her parents to donate to charities instead. This year, she took to Facebook to make the same request. She wrote on the Find Kim Lindsey page encouraging friends and family to donate to Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse.

“Please help us in the struggle against domestic violence, and help us prevent more senseless tragedies like the case of our parents,” she wrote. 

Later that evening, she met a group of about 15 friends at an Asian cafe for her birthday dinner. 

The waiter came around and everyone ordered. Except Sarah, who, in this moment, was just a 21-year-old overwhelmed by a long menu.

“I love the people here too much,” she said. “Now don’t talk to me so I can pick.”

She spent most of the night on her feet, walking down the table to check in with her guests. At one point, a friend ordered a round of sake shots.

After some convincing, Sarah took one off the tray and downed it. Across the table, someone said, “Birthday girl’s turning up!” 

   

On a warm morning in mid-October, Kim’s friends and family all came together again wearing “Team Kim” T-shirts. Instead of holding hands and crying, they joked and laughed together, waiting for the Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse Race for Hope to begin.

Instead of receiving the bad news that their friend and mother had died, they received the good news that Team Kim had raised upwards of $16,000 for the race’s cause. 

Sarah filed into line as the sun crept over the Delray Beach Horizon. Like her mother, she’s always hated running. But when the blow horn went off, so did she, jogging beside Karen’s eldest daughter, Ryenne.

They kept up their pace down a beachfront road as the sun rose higher and sweat started to slide down their faces. As the pair crested the top of a hill and the finish line was in sight, Sarah challenged Ryenne to race the rest of the way.

Sarah broke away, pumping her arms back and forth and widening her stride. 

She ran straight through the finish line, right into the arms of a group from Team Kim. One of them asked how it was.

“It was so worth it,” she said.

Then, one of her friends tossed water on her from a water bottle, and Sarah tossed water back, and they laughed and hugged and walked up the hill to grab food.

The hard part was over. 

[A version of this story ran on page 14 on 10/17/2014]

Sarah Lambert, 21, talking to friends before the Victimes of Domestic Abuse for Hope on Oct. 11, 2013.

Sarah Lambert with her mother, Kim Lindsey, and her sisters, Sofia and Savannah, at Sofia's high school graduation.

Sarah Lambert, center, 21, crossing the finish line of the Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse for Hope in Delroy Beach.

Sarah Lambert, 21, jogging with friend, Ryenne Dietrick, 17 at Race for Hope – Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse in Delray Beach.

Sarah Lambert, 21, and her mother, Kim Lindsey, outside of Mochi.

Sarah Lambert laughs with her mother, Kim Lindsey, at Mochi on University Avenue during one of Kim's visits to Gainesville. 

Sarah Lambert with her mom, Kim Lindsey, at the Palm Beach Zoo to celebrate Mother's Day 2013.

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