WESTON — A Florida canal yielded a murky mystery Wednesday: an algae-covered minivan with human bones inside that may be of a Tampa family that disappeared more than a decade ago.
While local authorities won't disclose the identity of the remains, Tampa police confirmed to a family member that the van in which the bones were found belonged to a mother and two daughters missing for nearly 11 years.
Broward Sheriff's Office divers on a training mission discovered the van in 18 feet of water near a rest area along Interstate 75, sheriff's spokesman Mike Jachles said. The remains of at least one person were inside.
The case was being treated as a homicide, and investigators were trying to determine "how many more human remains might be in the water, how they got there and whether this was accidental or something more sinister," Jachles said.
Investigators had covered the van's tag, but one law enforcement official at the scene said it dated to 1999. That is the year Nelta Jacques, 27, and her two young daughters disappeared during a nighttime trip from Fort Lauderdale to their Tampa home.
They were in a 1996 green Dodge Caravan. It was a green Dodge Caravan that deputies pulled from the canal Wednesday.
Jachles said investigators would not discuss whether the van belonged to Jacques. "I divulged all the information that the detectives have allowed me to divulge at this point," he said Wednesday evening. "There's no new information expected."
But Jacques' brother, Valbrun Chevalier, 32, of Port St. Lucie, said Tampa police investigators called his family to say the car dragged from the canal was registered to Jacques.
"It's on my mind every single day," he said of his sister's disappearance. However, "it's worse knowing that she's dead."
Chevalier said Jacques, who worked at Walmart and toll plazas, had left her daughters with her father in Fort Lauderdale while she visited family in Haiti.
Jacques collected her daughters, Johanna St. Louis, 7, and Juanita, 5, and left Fort Lauderdale about 11:30 p.m. June 2, 1999. They never arrived at their Tampa home and haven't been heard from since.
"She was about eight months pregnant," said Dinora Perry, who runs Missing Children International Ministries in Pembroke Pines and has campaigned for greater police efforts in the search for Jacques.
"Her father begged her not to drive that car alone. She said, 'Daddy, I'm grown.' "
About a dozen Broward sheriff's divers found the van about 11 a.m. during their training session. They had previously pulled two other vehicles out of the canal; neither had any bones inside.
When the Caravan was being towed from the water, it got caught on a boat ramp and fell over, Sheriff's Sgt. Joe Capua said. When it was pulled upright, the windows broke and officials saw bones scattered inside among rocks and mud, he said.
The vehicle was then covered with a tarp and hauled on a truck to the Broward Medical Examiner's Office.
About one out of every 100 vehicles that divers pull out of canals in Broward County have bones in them, Jachles said.
In the past 13 years, there have been at least 11 instances of the remains of dead drivers, some missing since the '70s, being found in the hundreds of miles of canals that crisscross South Florida.
In 1997, the remains of five teens from Miami-Dade and Broward counties who disappeared in 1979 were found in a van pulled from a canal west of Boca Raton. In 2001, the remains of a man who had also disappeared in 1979 were found in a car at the bottom of a canal in the Everglades.
In 2008, the remains of Jeffrey Walter Klee, who had disappeared 31 years earlier, were found in a canal near Coral Springs. Police think he died during an argument with a friend, who later admitted he pushed a van containing Klee's body into the water.