TAMPA — Candles standing in neat rows in the driveway flickered and illuminated posters pleading for Emilio Martinez-Rodriguez's safe return.
Friends held vigils outside his north Tampa home and prayed for answers. Kacee, his wife pregnant with their first child, hoped it was all just a bad dream.
A week and a day since Martinez-Rodriguez, 34, vanished, maintenance workers Thursday discovered a body and a car police believe are his, in a vacant lot about 8 miles from his home.
Tampa police can't say for certain it's the man who left to get his wife Chinese food the evening of Dec. 15 and never made it back — only the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner can do that. A positive identification is expected today.
But the body matched Martinez-Rodriguez's description. And police positively identified his missing 2007 Toyota Camry at the scene, said Andrea Davis, a police spokeswoman.
"Kacee . . . is very distraught," her father, Andy Urso, 55, of Austin said Thursday night. "She's holding up as best she can, but she's obviously drained."
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Nine years ago, Kacee's brother encouraged her to meet his best friend from Hillsborough Community College.
Martinez-Rodriguez was from Puerto Rico. After a year at the University of Puerto Rico, he left to join the Army. Four years later, in 1999, he said goodbye to his buddies in the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, N.C., and took a job as a diesel mechanic in Tampa.
With an eye on a business administration degree, Martinez-Rodriguez enrolled at HCC.
He and Kacee met through A.J. Urso, his best friend and her brother.
Later, at a celebration to mark Kacee's graduation from college, Martinez-Rodriguez proposed. They honeymooned in the Poconos.
Most recently, he worked as a supervisor at Nextran Trucking and attended Grace Family Church in Lutz.
The couple, now married four years, recently found out she was pregnant. Kacee Martinez said her husband cried after hearing the child's heartbeat.
One night last week, she had a headache and wasn't feeling well. He kissed her and went out to get food.
Later that evening, a neighbor text messaged Kacee about a suspicious man in the alley.
She opened her door and found a grocery bag with Mug root beer in it — her favorite.
Surveillance video from outside a neighbor's home showed Martinez-Rodriguez's car driving toward his house, and a man running up the street as Martinez-Rodriguez passed by.
Kacee reported her husband missing.
Tony Howard, 50, has been using crutches lately and hadn't done his rounds at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay in a couple of weeks, he said.
The maintenance man and his son were tending to a vacant lot across the street from the society's mosque on Orient Road near Sligh Avenue when they saw a gray Camry with the doors open and what appeared to be bleach stains on the carpet.
Howard told his son not to touch the car. "I knew it was stolen because all the doors were open," he said.
They called an administrator from the mosque and reported the car to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at 11:38 a.m., said Debbie Carter, a sheriff's spokeswoman.
Minutes later, Howard called to report a body.
"He was wearing a red jacket and blue jeans," he recalled — a description of what police said Martinez-Rodriguez was seen wearing before he disappeared.
Davis said the death appeared to be a homicide, but would not disclose the manner.
Martinez-Rodriguez's family was notified of the discovery.
A.J. Urso, 29, of Austin, said he last saw his brother-in-law two weeks ago when he came to town for another solemn occasion, the funeral of a beloved uncle.
He never thought this would be how his friendship ended.
"I thought we would grow old together and our kids would play with each other," he said. "Well, my kids will still play with his."
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this report.