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3 missing Dickinson State students found dead in submerged vehicle

Ashley Neufeld1 / 4
Afton Williamson2 / 4
Kyrstin Gemar3 / 4
Dickinson Police Lt. Rod Banyai, Stark County Sherriff Clarence Tuhy and DSU President Dr. Richard McCallum spoke to the media during Wednesday morning press conference at the Dickinson Armory.4 / 4

DICKINSON, N.D. - Authorities found the bodies of three missing Dickinson State University students in a vehicle submerged in a stock pond northwest of town Tuesday, two days after they went missing.

Kyrstin Gemar, 22, Ashley Neufeld, 21, and Afton Williamson, 20, were inside Gemar's white Jeep Cherokee, which was pulled from the 12-foot-deep pond Tuesday afternoon, Dickinson Police Lt. Rod Banyai said at a news conference.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, officials released the location of the stock pond.

Officials said the stock pond is located at approximately 3/4 of a mile north of 31st St. SW and 117th Ave. SW in Stark County.

"The area that we're talking about is a farming community," said Clarence Tuhy, Stark County Sheriff. "It's like an alfalfa field or hay field with a dugout which would be a pond. The pond was about 10 feet deep, the pond was, from talking to the owner was built about five or six years ago and this probably one of the few years it was a full dam."

Tuhy said the vehicle was on its wheels in the water and vehicle doors and windows were all shut.

"I did personally drive out there this morning about 2:30 or 3 (p.m.) to kind of view it driving with a pickup which is probably a little bit bigger than what the Cherokee was," Tuhy said. "The viability, and of course it's dark and when you're not familiar with an area like that, it would have been very easy to drive into the pond."

The women, who all played softball for the university, had been missing since Sunday evening when they had reportedly gone stargazing together.

Foul play is not suspected, but the matter has not been ruled an accident, either, Banyai said.

At about 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, a search team discovered vehicle tracks leading into the pond, Banyai said. Oil residue was reportedly floating on the surface of the pond.

"It's a couple of miles, probably, off a main road," Banyai said of the pond. He declined to give a specific location.

"We will have more information later, but they're still looking at the scene and trying to determine the cause of what happened," Banyai said. "It is a scene that we're investigating, and we need to keep anyone from getting on the scene right now."

Banyai said he does not know who was driving the Jeep.

The women made two phone calls about a minute apart at about 11:18 p.m. Sunday, Banyai said.

Frantic noises were heard during both calls and the women were asking for help, police said.

The vehicle will be examined to find out if there were any problems with it, Banyai said.

In an interview with The Dickinson Press before the fates of the three women were known, parents of the women said they recently heard from their daughters.

Phil Neufeld, Ashley Neufeld's father, said he and his wife, Bev, had walked around Patterson Lake on Tuesday morning, searching for clues.

"The water thing scared me and the fact that all the cell phones quit put a very negative thought in my mind," he said.

The last time they had spoken to Ashley was about a week ago, but Phil received an e-mail from her Sunday evening.

Lenny and Claire Gemar, Kyrstin's parents, said they last spoke to their daughter late Saturday night.

"My wife spoke with her," Lenny Gemar said. "I want to say it was around midnight, or maybe after that time, and they just chatted for a little bit like mother and daughter do when the daughter's off at college."

"We are very deeply saddened by this turn of events, and we are going to mobilize all of our resources to work with the families and the students on campus," said Constance Walter, director of university relations. "Kyrstin, Ashley and Afton were essential parts of not just the softball team, but they were also critical to the university and the student body, and they will be greatly missed by their teammates and others."

Walter said Williamson, who was a junior, transferred to DSU from a Southern California college this fall. Neufeld and Gemar, who were seniors, had been at DSU for more than a year, Walter said.

Gemar is a native of San Diego and Neufeld is a native of Brandon, Man., their parents said. Williamson is from Lake Elsinore, Calif., according to the DSU Web site.

Walter said she is not aware that DSU has experienced a loss similar to this.

"These were very popular young ladies," said Hal Haynes, DSU vice president of student development.