Law enforcement kept dozens of spectators in suspense as a station wagon dangled from a crane, the canal waterline just high enough to cover the license plate.
If the license plate read SNOBIRD, the Punta Gorda Police Department could have concluded it was the car of 64-year-old Frances Hendrickson, who was last seen in 1993 driving a light-blue Buick station wagon with the specialty tag.
Just before noon on Thursday, the car was pulled from the canal. The suspense, however, didn’t end. The letters on the plate were indecipherable underneath 20 years of corrosion.
“For 20 years, we have referred to this case as the ‘Snobird Case,’” said Capt. Tom Lewis of the PGPD.
Lewis said investigators were 99 percent sure that skeletal remains scattered inside the vehicle belonged to Hendrickson. Authorities said they do not suspect foul play, and that Hendrickson may have been disoriented when she drove into the canal.
“We are glad to bring closure to her family and to the community,” said Lewis.
The PGPD located the submerged vehicle with a robotic camera borrowed from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office earlier this week. On Wednesday, the Punta Gorda Police Dive Team readied it for removal.
The station wagon was located in 18 feet of water and buried 4 feet in the bed of a canal behind the intersection of Whippoorwill Boulevard and Eider Street, just blocks from the missing woman’s home on the 3700 block of Whippoorwill Boulevard.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and the LCSO also aided with the recovery effort. “We have good law enforcement here,” said Ross Dorrer, a resident of Punta Gorda who came out to watch the recovery. “There is some 50 miles of canals around here.”
Lewis said that water visibility and debris left over from Hurricane Charley made locating the vehicle difficult.
“With the older sonar, it would just show a mass at the bottom,” said Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert “Butch” Arenal. “It could be anything. One time we found a safe down there.”
The Punta Gorda Fire Department had to use a hydraulic cutting tool to open the rear door of the vehicle because it was corroded shut.
After law officers gained entry, they found the remains.
Lewis said the bone fragments will be analyzed using a DNA sample from Hendrickson. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will take custody of the remains. Authorities expect possible identification in a week.