DICKINSON, N.D. — A 21-year-old student from Manitoba was among three North Dakota college softball players found dead Tuesday in a Jeep that was pulled from a farm pond two days after the women disappeared.
Authorities had been searching since Sunday night for Ashley Neufeld of Brandon, Man., Kyrstin Gemar, 22, of San Diego; and Afton Williamson, 20, of Lake Elsinore, Calif.
Police Lt. Rod Banyai said police are “still investigating” the cause of the deaths and autopsies are planned. He said he believed the women were on a stargazing trip in the Jeep when they made two cellphone calls to friends for help, but he did not know whether it already was under water when the calls were made.
“At this time, foul play is not suspected,” Banyai said Tuesday night. Investigators were working to determine whether the vehicle had any defects or whether alcohol was involved, he said.
Hours later, the parents of two of the students attended a prayer service inside a packed Dickinson State student centre ballroom.
“We are just trying to be strong for Ashley,” said Neufeld’s mother, Bev Neufeld.
“That’s what she would want, and we have so much support here (on campus). We know how much Ashley loved this school. I would just like everybody to remember Ashley’s smile and personality.”
In Brandon, Man., people said they were devastated by news of Ashley’s tragic death.
Jim Nay, who coached her for more than six years, said news of her death left him with a feeling of “nothing but total devastation.”
She was a “fantastic” player and “a very, very outgoing person,” Nay said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.
“Her work ethic was probably the strongest, her knowledge of the game was very superior. I’ve coached an awful lot of people from young boys through to adult men, from young girls through to adult women and Ashley was probably one of the top two or three most knowledgeable people I have ever coached”.
The three young women were believed to be in the white 1997 Jeep Cherokee with California plates when they were last heard from in the calls made to two friends on cellphones before lines went dead.
Police described the first as a “very scratchy” call for help in which one of the women said they were near a lake and water.
Kyrstin Gemar’s parents, Lenny and Claire, said during an earlier news conference at police headquarters, before the bodies were found, that it was not uncommon for his daughter and her friends to go stargazing on the spur of the moment.
Banyai said the pond is about 3.6 metres deep on a farm northwest of Dickinson. He said searchers found vehicle tracks leading into the pond Tuesday afternoon, and searchers in an airplane flying over the site saw oil on top of the water.
The submerged vehicle was pulled from the pond about two hours later, police said.
Banyai said the vehicle will be checked for defects. He said authorities don’t know how it got into the pond.
Nay said he expected a massive funeral in Brandon where the community is grieving the loss.
“I don’t know where they’re going to house it here in Brandon because I don’t think there’s a church going to be big enough to hold it. That’s just what the love is for the family and for Ashley.”
Dickinson State spokeswoman Constance Walter said the 2,700-student school planned to work with the families and students on campus in dealing with the tragedy.
“They will be greatly missed by their teammates and others,” Walter said of the women.
The college listed Gemar as a senior business major who played third base on the softball team. Neufeld was a senior outfielder working on a degree in psychology, and Williamson, a junior, was a pitcher majoring in psychology with a minor in coaching.
“I’m sure it will be difficult for quite a while. But we know that they’ll be there with us. They would want us to play,” softball teammate Jessica Huseby of Hamilton, Mont., said at the prayer service. “We just know they’re going to be the 10th, 11th and 12th players on the field with us.”