EAST MANATEE -- Red, yellow and blue Chinese lanterns rose in the sky like mini-hot-air balloons above 41st Avenue East in East Manatee at dusk Sunday to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the death of Palmetto High School media specialist Pat Mullins.
"Pat, you are not forgotten," said a tearful Jodi John, Mullins' sister-in-law and one of 32 friends and family who launched the lanterns on a cul de sac a few streets over from 43rd Avenue East -- where Mullins himself launched a small boat on a sunny afternoon Jan. 27, 2013, to test an engine he had repaired.
Mullins never returned home and his boat was discovered 5 miles east of Egmont Key Jan. 29.
His body was discovered Feb. 5 tied to a boat anchor rope a half-mile off Emerson Point, but he did not drown. Mullins died of a shotgun wound just below his right jaw. The shotgun has not been found
Just before launching the lanterns, guests talked about the late Mullins inside the home and on a new dock family members built for his wife, Jill Mullins.
Pat Mullins' son, Miles, 25, said he has never let speculation his father killed himself sway his opinion.
"You would have to know him," Miles Mullins said of his father. "He was a strong-willed person. It would be improbable he would do something like that. One big reason is that he felt strongly that he was a role model for his students. He also was totally into his family. My dad was a solid guy, not a showy guy. No drama with him."
Miles Mullins said his father exhibited no signs of depression.
"They just weren't there," Mullins said.
But if Pat Mullins didn't kill himself, who killed him and why?
Miles Mullins thinks someone may have surprised his father and jumped him in the blink of an eye for some reason.
"I do think someone out there knows what happened," Mullins said. "What our family wants right now is to keep talking about my father and try to find a clue."
Jodi John said she believes Pat Mullins came across an individual intent on using his boat to commit a crime.
She believes the perpetrator made Mullins leave his boat at gunpoint, killed him on land, used the boat for an illegal activity then set it afloat on the Braden River before disposing of Mullins' body using the boat anchor rope.
Just the fact Pat Mullins didn't return home remains a stunner in itself to Michelle Humel, Miles Mullins' girlfriend.
"It's a little crazy that it happened," Humel said. "Everyone wants to know the answer. He was warm and welcome and sweet to talk to."
$20,000 reward unclaimed
A $20,000 reward offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the death of Pat Mullins has come partly from a Mullins' family fundraiser in September and partly from Manatee County Crime Stoppers and the Gold Star Club of Manatee County, Jill Mullins said.
Since being posted in the fall, not one tip has been sent in, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said Sunday.
"It's still an open death investigation," Steube said.
Jill Mullins said she made it through the year by embarking on a mission to find out what happened to her husband.
"Because of that I have a focus," she said. "That keeps me busy. I don't know what I will do once the case is solved. But right now it isn't solved and I am trying to get the word out."
Mullins said she believes some Manatee County snowbirds, who were back north when it was announced during the summer her husband died from a shotgun blast, might know something.
"I would like them to think back to a Sunday afternoon on Jan. 27, 2013, and try to recall if they heard a particularly loud noise," Mullins said.
The autopsy revealed the end of the shotgun was just below the jawbone, possibly pressing right on the skin to up to 10 millimeters away, Mullins said.
"I do believe he ran across someone doing something illegal and that is what led to this," Mullins said. "I don't know people who carry shotguns on them who aren't doing something they shouldn't be doing."
Anyone who knows anything about the Mullins' case is asked to alert the Manatee County Sheriff's Office at 941-747-3011, ext. 2210, or Manatee County Crime Stoppers at 866-634-TIPS or via PatMullinsMemorialFund@gmail.com.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.