After a long night working and hanging out with coworkers after his shift, Robert Helphrey got into his gray Mitsubishi to drive to his apartment on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.
That was May 21, 2006. And it was the last known sighting of the 34-year-old, whose disappearance has stumped detectives, family and friends for years.
On Friday morning — nearly 17 years after Helphrey went missing — Pinellas Sheriff’s Office detectives pulled a gray Mitsubishi with human bones inside from a Palm Harbor pond near the 200 block of Old Oak Circle. The car was registered to Helphrey.
The sheriff’s office retrieved the car with help from the Sunshine State Sonar search team, sheriff’s office spokesperson Amanda Sinni said. According to its website, Sunshine State Sonar is a volunteer team based in St. Petersburg that helps find missing people, vessels and vehicles in bodies of water.
The vehicle’s discovery marks a major break in a case that authorities struggled to untangle for years.
The sheriff’s office said on Friday that an investigation is ongoing. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office is working to identify the body found inside the car and determine a cause of death.
Helphrey was the general manager at the Thirsty Marlin, a seafood house in Palm Harbor, according to newspaper reports from around the time he vanished. On the day he went missing, Helphrey closed the bar about 12:30 a.m. and went to Peggy O’Neill’s Irish Pub & Eatery across the street with two coworkers.
About an hour later, Helphrey told them he was going home. On the way to his apartment, he called a friend to invite him over, as the two sometimes played computer games or cards late at night.
When the friend went to Helphrey’s apartment, he heard Helphrey’s dog barking, but there was no answer at the door. The friend assumed Helphrey had gone to bed.
An Army veteran who served in Iraq, Helphrey was always on time to his two jobs. So when he didn’t show for his shift at the Thirsty Marlin the next day, the owner called Helphrey’s parents.
When his parents went to his apartment, nothing had been touched and his car was not at the complex. Only his yellow lab, Rig, was there.
After he didn’t pick up his daughter from school the next day, his parents began to worry more. They had already lost their other child, Debbie, to a cardiac arrest during a party celebrating Helphrey’s return home from the military. They later learned that she died due to herbal teas she drank every night for months. They were profiled on “60 Minutes” and “20/20″ in reports that looked into the dangers of unregulated herbal dietary supplements. Reached by phone on Friday, Helphrey’s mother declined an interview request.
Searches for Helphrey’s cellphone and financial records did not turn up any leads, detectives said at the time.
“The car hasn’t turned up; he hasn’t turned up. ... There have not been any leads; there have not been any sightings,” Pinellas County sheriff’s Detective Michael Bailey told the then-St. Petersburg Times. “Basically, he’s dropped off the planet.”
Friends also helped search for Helphrey and were stunned by his disappearance.
“The only two things that came to my mind is that he went off the road someplace and went into some pond, or the only other thing is if he got carjacked or something,” his best friend, John Sheridan, told the Times in 2006. “The first two weeks were excruciating. People calling, out every day.”