ORLANDO, Fla. – The story of a Florida mom accused of killing her 2-year-old girl has become a soap opera of sorts over the last year, with plot twists and turns.
There are the grandparents, George and Cindy. The phantom baby sitter. The bounty hunter. The meter reader.
At the center of it all is the toddler Caylee Anthony and her mother, Casey, the petite 23-year-old charged in her daughter's death. It's been one year since the toddler was reported missing, and while her body was found six months ago, authorities still don't know exactly how she died.
That's one of the many unknowns that has kept the public's interest over the last year. Viewers tune in to the cable television news show hosted by Nancy Grace, who dubbed Casey the "Tot Mom," to find out about every development. People chat on parenting Web sites about her chances of a fair trial and debate over her innocence or guilt has filled talk radio.
"It certainly has the makings of a made-for-TV movie or a soap opera," said Bob Longo, news director of WESH, which like other Orlando television news stations has relentlessly covered the case. "I think people have opinions on the characters in the saga. They identify with them or against them."
The story started as a mystery, centered on finding out what happened to Caylee. But soon, Casey Anthony became the chief suspect and the image of a sympathetic mother morphed into that of a party-loving club-hopper. The stories she told detectives and her parents about where she worked and where she had dropped off Caylee with a baby sitter were lies, police said.
It turned out Caylee had been missing more than a month before Casey Anthony told her family. After her arrest, she told police she had been conducting her own investigation into her daughter's whereabouts.
George and Cindy Anthony, the grandparents, were used to seeing the little girl almost every day. But beginning about mid-June 2008, Casey and Caylee just weren't around.
When the grandparents inquired, Casey said she was traveling with Caylee around central Florida. Cindy began to worry, though, and called her daughter frequently, demanding to know Caylee's whereabouts. There were always excuses: Caylee was with the baby sitter or at the beach with friends.
In mid-July, George and Cindy picked up their daughter's car from a towing lot and noticed a stench from the trunk. Cindy Anthony confronted her daughter, who initially said Caylee was with the phantom baby sitter. Then, Casey finally admitted the little girl had been missing for a month.
"There's something wrong," Cindy Anthony said in a 911 call. "I found my daughter's car today and it smelled like there's been a dead body in the damn car."
Casey Anthony was arrested the next day on charges of child neglect and providing false information to authorities. She continued to tell law enforcement that Caylee had been left with a baby sitter, whom she identified as Zenaida Gonzalez.
That's when the story switched from a private drama of domestic tensions between parents and a daughter to a very public tale. Reporters camped outside the Anthony home for weeks and protesters with "Baby Killer" signs picketed their street.
Casey Anthony maintained her innocence throughout.
"I'm not in control of this because I don't know what the hell is going on," she tearfully told her parents during a jailhouse visit last summer. "My entire life has been taken from me. Everything has been taken from me."
Leonard Padilla, a cowboy-hat-wearing, California-based bounty hunter became part of the narrative by posting her bond last year. He thought having her out of jail would aid in finding Caylee, but he turned on her when she proved uncooperative. He made frequent appearances on television talk shows in the following months, offering unflattering commentary.
Meanwhile, hundreds of volunteers scoured woods in south Orlando in search of clues to Caylee's disappearance.
In mid-October, a grand jury indicted Anthony on first-degree murder charges, even though Caylee's body hadn't been found. She has been in jail ever since.
Prosecutors didn't have a body until meter reader Roy Kronk became involved. In August, Kronk thought he had seen a bag in the woods near a road where he had stopped to take a break. He called authorities three times over the next three days, but when they finally came, they found nothing.
It wasn't until December, when Kronk returned to the woods, that he discovered a bag with Caylee's remains inside. Detectives said residue of a heart-shaped sticker was found on duct tape over the mouth of her skull.
Along the way, there have been other subplots. A despondent George Anthony attempted suicide in a Daytona Beach motel room in January and then was committed to a hospital for several days.
A spokesman for the Anthony family was dismissed after the family accused him of taking payments for booking their television appearances. Another spokesman who never showed his face to reporters turned out to be a fictitious creation of the public relations firm used by Casey Anthony's attorney.
As much as Casey Anthony's story has transfixed viewers, Lezlie Laws, a professor of nonfiction writing at Rollins College in suburban Orlando, worries that the discourse about the case hasn't been constructive.
"What is it about us as a society that would cultivate a human being that would be capable of doing that? What are we doing wrong? Where do we need to put our time, attention, money and social services?" she said.
"I don't see that being raised," Laws said. "Instead, it's just a sensational, spilled guts on the concrete, kind of 'Look at this, isn't this gross?' story."