BRANDON — A fervent 10-day search for Apryl Foster, who disappeared after a night in Ybor City, came to an end Sunday afternoon when Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies found her car submerged in a lake.
Authorities said they recovered a body from inside the car and have "no reason" to believe it was anyone other than Foster, 33. She was last seen Feb. 13 wearing clothing that matched that of the recovered victim.
"This is a tragic end to a very sad story," deputy Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said.
Sheriff's Office Maj. J.R. Burton told reporters Sunday that a boater on Mango Lake near Open Field Loop and Rain Dance Place reported striking a submerged object near a boat ramp less than a half mile from Foster's home. Another neighbor reported a similar experience.
Their conversations led to a neighbor reviewing footage from two security cameras: one that was trained on the community boat ramp, the other on the usually locked gate leading to it. The cameras showed Foster's Chevy Aveo turning into the boat ramp parking lot and driving down the ramp into the lake. Authorities did not provide the time.
Noelle Fraser, 17, who lives across the street from the home with the security cameras, said the gate to the ramp is normally locked. Residents within the community all have keys, but a week or two ago, Fraser said they noticed the gate was broken and the chain was dangling.
Fraser said she didn't think anything of it until the rescue units arrived Sunday afternoon.
"That's when we knew that they were looking for her," Fraser said. "It's freaky knowing you live right here and you didn't even hear anything or see anything."
Police stopped short of confirming the body inside the submerged car is Foster's, with the Sheriff's Office saying it has tentatively been identified as hers. The Medical Examiner's Office will make the final determination.
Foster's parents, who had driven into town from Texas after not hearing from their daughter, arrived at the search scene Sunday as word quickly spread of the found car.
"We don't understand this. Maybe we will one day," said Craig Beman, Foster's father.
"We just know she's with Jesus now," said Foster's mother, Peggy Beman.
Both thanked authorities for their work to locate Foster, their voices breaking as they held back tears and hugged detectives.
"We are so thankful because, for me, I just cannot imagine not having closure," Peggy Beman said. "That's something that God has blessed us with."
The Bemans reported their daughter missing after failing to receive a good-morning phone message from her Feb. 13. They said she never neglected to call twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening.
They appeared alongside Tampa police the Monday following her disappearance pleading for information about their daughter's whereabouts. Authorities released video footage of Foster in various locations in Ybor City in the early-morning hours of Feb. 13.
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Foster worked at the recently opened Ulele restaurant in Tampa Heights, and the Gonzmart family, the principals in the group that owns it, had offered a $10,000 reward for information about her disappearance. She had left the restaurant Feb. 12 before heading to Ybor City.
Offers from others pushed the reward higher, and billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor displayed pictures of Foster and her missing car.
Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer for the Columbia Restaurant Group, owner of Ulele, where Foster worked since last summer, said staffers remained anxious for word about their co-worker and friend.
"Everyone at the restaurant had been hoping for more than a week that they would find her and she would be all right and there would be an explanation for everything," he said.
All of that changed late Sunday afternoon when Kilgore saw a tweet from the Tampa Police Department about the discovery of Foster's missing car.
"I don't think I can put it into words," he said, trying to describe his reaction.
He said Foster proved invaluable as Ulele neared its August debut, working both as a server and by training new hires.
The staff eventually became close, "like a family," in large part thanks to Foster's personality and contribution to the team, he said.
"She was vivacious, very approachable," Kilgore said. "She was so friendly and outgoing."
To honor Foster last week, many servers showed up to work with hair like Foster's: done up to resemble Princess Leia from Star Wars.
"She was a huge Star Wars fan, and they decided on their own that they would wear their hair like that," he said. "The staff is very close-knit. This has been very difficult."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.