MANATEE -- An ex-boyfriend of a woman found shot to death in a Duette orange grove is a "person of interest" in her slaying.
Maria Moralez, 42, was found shot to death about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday inside a tractor at the orange grove where she worked at 42800 State Road 62, near Duette.
Joel Ramirez, 32, failed to show up at his job as a farm worker in Hardee County on Thursday morning, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. Ramirez is also known as Joel Ramirez-Hernandez.
Some who knew her best, believe Ramirez responsible for killing the mother of five on her birthday, including Kenny Watson, the orange grove manager.
"Her last boyfriend would beat her and he would sit and watch her work all day long," Watson said. "It was him. I would bet my life on it."
Watson had known Moralez 10 years, he said.
"She was a terrific lady, a good worker who never complained," Watson said. "She mowed four groves all by herself and anything that needed to be done she did it."
Watson said despite her troubles at home at times, she never let it affect her work.
"The man who found her body was devastated when he found her," Watson said. "She was found in the tractor but it looked like there was a struggle outside."
The co-worker went looking for her after he became concerned when she didn't return to the company barn at the expected time, according to the sheriff's office.
Moralez was last seen around noon in the grove owned by F L M Inc. of Brandon.
Thursday morning Watson spotted footprints leading away from the scene and called the sheriff's office back out.
Two deputies, a detective, the crime scene unit and the MCSO helicopter all came back out to continue processing evidence at the scene.
Moralez lived in Bowling Green in Hardee County. Detectives from local law enforcement agencies there have been assisting with the investigation, according to Manatee County Sheriff's Office spokesman Dave Bristow.
Wednesday was the single mother's birthday. Her eldest son Jose Moralez, 20, had seen her only days earlier for his own birthday.
"I didn't believe it until I heard it from the authorities," Moralez said.
His siblings, ages 18, 16, 10, and 3, were also shocked.
"They cried and I cried with them." Moralez said.
Jose Moralez had always been concerned about his mother and her ex-boyfriend.
"I told my mom I was worried," Moralez said. "I told her to just let him go."
Ramirez lived with Moralez for a time. Jose Moralez said it was his reason for moving out of the home. In December, he said, the family was able to kick Ramirez out.
Ramirez is the father of Moralez's 3-year-old daughter.
"He is probably going to try and get my baby sister," Moralez said. "He's done it before."
The older brother said his mother had to call police when Ramirez tried to once before take the baby away. He said all his siblings are now safe with family.
"She was a strong woman," Moralez said. "I wish she was here with me now."
Moralez's death marks the 10th homicide this year in Manatee County.
Anyone with information about the case, including Ramirez's whereabouts, can call the sheriff's office at 941-747-3011, ext. 2159, or Crime Stoppers at 866-634-TIPS.
Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.