MONTPELIER – Stephen Perry’s life wasn’t easy, but it had gotten better in recent months.

Perry, a former Vermonter, went from being homeless in his car to living in a suburban Florida home. A charity began helping him pay for the treatment of his terminal bladder cancer.

Then he went missing May 9. Friends and family stopped receiving e-mails and phone calls from the 56-year-old writer, who was divorced. Police discovered his van – soaked in blood and abandoned – in a parking lot.

A severed human arm was found near the vehicle, police said. When they went to Perry’s home, it was ransacked and empty.Stephen Perry

Thursday, police in Zephyrhills, Fla., confirmed what many feared.

“The Zephyrhills Police Department is now investigating the disappearance of Stephen J. Perry as an apparent homicide,” said Capt. Rob McKinney in a news release. “Laboratory results on evidence are still pending at this time.”

Perry’s two roommates – both of whom have lengthy criminal histories – are in jail on unrelated charges, although police consider them “persons of interest” in the case.

“As you can imagine, this has been horrifying, sickening, depressing, frustrating, infuriating, sorrowful news,” Stephen R. Bissette of Windsor, a close friend of Perry’s since the 1970s, wrote on his blog.

Becoming a writer

Perry was born in Maine and moved to Vermont in the early 1970s to attend Johnson State College. He lived in this state when he wrote much of his most widely seen work, including several issues for Marvel Comics and several episodes of the 1980s “Thundercats” cartoon.

Johnson is where Perry met Bissette, a comics creator who now teaches at White River Junction’s Center for Cartoon Studies.

“When I first arrived at Johnson, everyone told me I needed to meet Steve,” Bissette said. “He was already writing a lot then, including two plays and an unpublished novel.”

The two friends began working on stories together.

Perry’s first break came in 1981, when he and Bissette created a series of stories for Marvel Comics. By the mid-1980s, Perry’s comics – although never huge sellers – were garnering critical acclaim.

His big break came when he began writing for animation studio Rankin/Bass on the children’s television shows “Thundercats” and “Silverhawks.” The first show was a hit, spawning toys, comics and other merchandise.

But this was all work-for-hire, meaning Perry didn’t receive royalties. When “Thundercats” toys came out, Perry had to buy them from a store for his young son.

“Freelance work is a meager living,” Bissette said. “You wait for paychecks to come in and try to land as many jobs as you can.”

In the late 1980s, Perry’s writing work dried up. Editors stopped returning his calls. Checks stopped coming in. He was heartbroken. Writing comics was his dream.

After comics

But he didn’t give up on the dream.

In the early 1990s, he answered a newspaper ad for a job at Moondance Comics, a Brattleboro store. Owner Alan Goldstein said Perry was the only applicant to come in with a portfolio. He quickly hired him.

“He threw himself at the job,” Goldstein said. “Steve was one of the most loyal people I worked with. We quickly became friends.”

Years later, Perry would provide the inspiration for Goldstein to launch his next business, an independent video rental store in Brattleboro.

“First Run Video was Steve’s idea,” said Goldstein, who recently sold the business and retired to the West Coast.

But Perry still never made much money. He relied on weekly flea market sales in the spring and summer. For a few years he worked for a carnival that traveled between Maine and Florida, where he would later relocate.

“When he was let go from ‘Thundercats,’ the light went out of his eyes,” Bissette said. “Even when life was good for him, life was still bad.”

The crime

“My name is Steve Perry and I used to be a writer,” Perry says at the start of a promotional video for the Hero Initiative, a California-based charity for veteran comics creators experiencing financial or health problems.

Perry minces no words when describing his living situation before help arrived early this year: homeless in his car, no income, no health insurance, no hope. His body ravaged by cancer, he thought he was close to death.

The Hero Initiative paid for some of his medical bills and got him a place to live. It also assisted him in signing up for state and federal benefits – food stamps, Social Security and Medicaid. Life seemed to stabilize, although he knew he was still one late payment away from having the electricity turned off.

“They really saved my life,” he said in the video.

Two months after he recorded that video in Florida, Perry’s life took what appears to be a grisly turn.

Here’s what is known publicly about the crime: Perry lived in a rundown home in Zephyrhills, a community outside Tampa with a population of less than 12,000, with two roommates – James Davis, 46, and his wife, Roxanne Davis, 49, whom Perry had taken in to help pay the bills.

Police originally investigated the disappearance of all three after Perry’s van – and the arm – turned up in Tampa in mid-May. By the end of that week, James and Roxanne Davis were found and arrested on unrelated drug and robbery charges.

What had started as a missing person case quickly became a possible homicide. Police have released few details – communicating with the media mostly through news releases – and it is not known if the arm belonged to Perry or if police have found his body.

“He didn’t deserve this,” Goldstein said. “An evil has been done to him.”

McKinney, the police captain in Zephyrhills, acknowledged that the public was frustrated with the lack of updates on the case. He said last week – before announcing the case was now considered a homicide – that investigators were “dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s.”

“This isn’t ‘CSI: Miami,’” McKinney said. “We’re waiting on lab results. The crime can’t get solved in the last half hour like they do on TV.”

Media attention to Perry’s health care plight seemed to ignite some interest in his comics work. At least two companies expressed interest in releasing some of the comics as books, and one announced it had bought the rights to reprint one of his comics. And he wrote a new “Salimba” short story, based on one of his final comic books.

“The sad reality of this is that Steve’s death has reignited some interest in his work,” Bissette said.