ST. PETERSBURG — Leroy Fowler's wife and daughter tried to stay positive as they drove along Interstate 275 on Sunday afternoon.
Then Shavonne Fowler saw her dad's 1999 Volvo sedan on the side of northbound I-275 near the 22nd Avenue N exit.
The hood was up and the doors were unlocked. The front left tire was blown out. Someone, likely a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, had slapped an orange sticker to a back window, tagging it as abandoned.
Leroy Harris Fowler Jr. hadn't returned home the night before. The two women weren't sure where he was.
Unbeknownst to them, Leroy Fowler wasn't far away at all.
Police believe the 62-year-old Tampa man died after falling from an elevated overpass near I-375 after experiencing car trouble Saturday afternoon. Detectives speculate he may have tried to shimmy down a tree to get to the ground after he walked south from where his car broke down.
His body wasn't found until Tuesday morning. A broken tree branch was found nearby.
"We're just in disbelief," Shavonne Fowler, 24, said Tuesday night. Her mother, Sharon, a high school teacher in Tampa, was too distraught to talk. "Everybody's in shock."
She said that though the family believes her father fell to his death, they're less sure about the notion of him trying to climb down a tree.
"He wasn't like that," Shavonne Fowler said. "Maybe he just lost his balance."
City workers found Fowler's body about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday in a secluded area at the Water Resources compound off Third Avenue N and 16th Street.
Injuries on Fowler's body were consistent with a fall, police said.
"There is no immediate evidence that Mr. Fowler was the victim of foul play, was struck by a vehicle or was otherwise attempting to harm himself," St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said.
Fowler came to St. Petersburg to visit relatives last weekend. His wife reported him missing Monday.
A relative told police that Fowler, who was not carrying a cellphone, left her home at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. His family in Tampa expected him back the same day.
Shavonne Fowler said her mom called her Sunday morning. The two women were worried, but hopeful.
Leroy Fowler grew up in St. Petersburg, they said. They figured he was staying with someone he knew or had checked into a hotel.
"He hadn't used any credit cards, but then again, he usually had cash on him," his daughter said.
She didn't assume the worst until Monday morning.
For two years, her father, who retired from a phone company years ago, has watched his 4-year-old granddaughter, Meayra. The two had a special bond. He taught her to call him "Roy" because he felt too young inside to be called "granddaddy."
"He was dedicated to watching my daughter," Shavonne Fowler said. "We knew he wouldn't just not show up. Something was wrong."
His wife took the day off work and sat by the phone. His daughter anxiously drove around St. Petersburg later that night.
On Tuesday, police told the family about the discovery of Leroy Fowler's body, and their theory of how he died.
Detectives believe Fowler left the car after it stopped, walked south along the highway, then fell off the overpass near I-375. The area where he landed is in a tucked-away spot at the city compound, police said, and is not visited daily by workers.
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office will determine an exact cause of death.
This isn't the first time someone has fallen off the overpass in that area.
In June 2010, authorities responded to a call of a riderless bike on the highway. They searched the area, but didn't find anyone. Fifteen hours later, they found the missing rider, 23-year-old Jose Pagan of St. Petersburg, dead underneath the overpass.
Both men were found in the same secluded area. The drop from the interstate in that area is reportedly about 30 feet.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.