A creature of habit, Jean Ault always began her monthly camping trips on a Thursday and returned home before noon on Sunday.
When Ault, 74, failed to show up at a Palmetto campground last Thursday, her friends notified police. And when she did not return home Sunday, worried neighbors called authorities.
"I had a gut feeling, but I didn't want to believe it," said Jack Stubbendick, a neighbor in the Lakewood Estates community in St. Petersburg where Ault lived and was a crime watch member.
Late Monday, Ault was identified as the woman whose body was found just after 11 a.m. Saturday at Coquina Key Park. Police said Ault was fatally beaten and that her legs and possibly her hands had been tied.
Detectives are searching for her camper, a 1994 Chevy Jayco with license tag L2176L.
"We're presuming at this point that there's a connection between her (camper) missing and what has transpired here with her death," homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz said.
Police are trying to determine Ault's whereabouts between the time she left her house at 2028 Barcelona Way S and the discovery of her body in water at the park at 595 Locust St. SE at the end of Wahoo Drive SE.
"At this point, it's just really a mystery," Puetz said.
Ault was dead before her body was dumped at the park, police said. And she was most likely alive from 12 to 24 hours before the discovery of her body.
On Monday, neighbors and family members were stunned. Her daughter was too upset to talk at length but said her mother loved to garden and volunteered as a greeter over the summers at national parks out West.
Ault played tennis and jogged or walked daily. She belonged to "Loners on Wheels," an area camping group.
"What a sweetheart," said St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Grimberg, who has patrolled Ault's neighborhood for six years. "It is just too scary."
On Tuesday last week, Ault attended the Lakewood Estates neighborhood watch group meeting. She was excited about the upcoming camping outing to Frog Creek Campground and Park in Palmetto.
"She said, "Richard, please, I'm going away for four days, so watch the house for me,' and I told her that I would," Grimberg said.
Ault lived alone, but there was no sign of a struggle at her house, leading detectives to wonder whether she was carjacked or whether someone approached her at her home.
"We're not eliminating the possibility that she knew this person," Puetz said.
Stubbendick, Ault's neighbor, said he last saw Ault at noon Thursday when she returned an art book she had borrowed. Ault told Stubbendick and his wife, Alice, that she was almost ready to leave for the trip. She only had to put her bicycle on the van, change clothes and pick up pastries at a local bakery.
"That was the last we saw her," Stubbendick said.
Anyone with information about Ault is asked to call St. Petersburg homicide Detective Glen Henry at (727) 551-3058.