TAMPA — A minivan pulled from a Broward County canal contained a missing Tampa woman's identification as well as the remains of an adult, two children and a fetus, authorities said Thursday.
Nelta Jacques has been missing since June 2, 1999, when she left her father's Fort Lauderdale house late on a rainy night to drive home to Tampa. She had her two young daughters in the van and was eight months pregnant, family friend Dinora Perry said Thursday.
Jacques, 27, never arrived home, and though her family filed a missing persons report, no one found Jacques or the green 1996 Dodge Caravan she was driving.
On Wednesday, investigators pulled a van that matched that description from a canal along Interstate 75. Sheriff's divers training in the canal had stumbled across it near mile marker 31.5.
Dozens of vehicles are recovered each year from South Florida canals, most stolen or a part of insurance fraud. But this one had human remains inside.
Thursday afternoon, the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed that the remains of an adult, two young children and a fetus were found in the van. Jacques' identification was also found in a purse in the van, Broward County Sheriff's Office spokesman Mike Jachles said.
The Sheriff's Office won't definitively confirm that the remains belong to Jacques and her children, ages 5 and 7, until they complete DNA tests, which could take weeks or months, Jachles said.
The Medical Examiner's Office also said there were no signs of foul play. The deaths appear to be accidental, officials said.
It was rainy when she left her father's house, and because it was nearly midnight it was dark, Jachles said. When the van was pulled from the water, investigators noticed that the headlights, windshield wipers and ignition were still on.
She may have accidentally rolled into a canal that she couldn't see, Jachles said.
Family and friends who had waited for years for news on Jacques were shocked and anxious for confirmation.
"We all thought, 'Could this finally be it?' " Perry said. "I told her brother, 'At least we know one thing. We think it's her vehicle.' "
She said Jacques' brother, Val Chevalier, who lives in Port St. Lucie, had trouble sleeping Wednesday night after receiving news about his sister.
"You could tell he just wanted to let go and just scream. He's a real low-key guy, but every day he thought of his sister," Perry said. "This is like a punch in the chest, but he's ready for it … They want to know."
Jacques' ex-husband, Jean Luc Jacques, 38, said he found out about the recovered van when his relatives called him Wednesday. He said he's the father of the youngest girl, Juanita, who was 5 when they went missing. His stepdaughter, Johanna St. Louis, 7, was also in the van.
"It was very difficult all those years," he said. "I always was hoping."
Jean Luc Jacques divorced his wife nine months after she went missing. He remarried that year and has two children, 4 and 9, with his new wife, he said. They live in Tampa.
The couple had been separated for about two months when Nelta Jacques went missing, he said. She had been working at Walmart and in tollbooths along the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
Jean Luc Jacques said he filed a missing-persons report and kept up hope that she and the girls were alive. He thought that perhaps she had moved away as they were separated, he said.
"I always thought they would show up," he said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.