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Friends, family say goodbye to Dickinson softball players

Press Photo by Lisa Call Claire Gemar, mother of Kyrstin Gemar, who drowned in a stock pond northwest of Dickinson, runs her hands through the pond's water during a visit to the site on Wednesday afternoon.

In a very somber and heartfelt visit to the site of an incident that left three Dickinson State University students dead, those closest to the young women tossed out a few last pitches and roses in remembrance.

After being reported missing on Sunday, DSU softball players Kyrstin Gemar, 22, Ashley Neufeld, 21, and Afton Williamson, 20, were discovered dead inside Gemar's Jeep Cherokee after it was pulled from a 10-foot-deep stock pond about 12 miles northwest of Dickinson, Tuesday.

For loved ones, friends and teammates, a visit to the site was a means of absorbing what happened amid unanswered questions.

"We just wanted to come out here to understand it a little bit more and wrap our heads around it," said Jody Lantz, Blue Hawks senior third baseman and teammate of the three women. "It's really hard right now, but we've gotta come together like a family. It's something that no one should ever have to experience."

Tear-filled sobs, prayer, laughter and loving words to the deceased could be heard over soft prairie winds.

Roses were dropped into the water.

Three neon yellow softballs were tossed into the water, one for each missing player.

First-year head coach Kristen Fleury said at this point, the team can only take things day by day.

"I told them from the get-go, we are one family here," Fleury said, sporting a silver and navy blue remembrance ribbon handed out by DSU staff.

Taking to the softball field again will be an adjustment for the team.

"It's gonna be weird going onto the field and knowing that they're never going to be there," Lantz said, choking back tears.

Leaning on their beliefs, Lenny and Claire Gemar, parents of Kyrstin Gemar, said they know their daughter is in a better place.

"I was just wondering what came through her mind the last moments of her life," Claire Gemar said.

She vividly remembers the last conversation she had with her daughter, Sunday afternoon.

"I said, 'Be safe,' and she goes, 'I will,' and 'I love you,'" Claire Gemar said. "That was it. That was the last time I talked to her."

Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said country traffic is excessive and often consists of "kids being kids."

A male Dickinson resident neighboring the pond, who requested to remain anonymous, said it is not uncommon for vehicles to drive through area fields.

The pond the three women died in is on private property.

Curtis Pavlicek of Dickinson, who has owned the pond and surrounding land for 30 years, said he isn't aware of any issues of trespassing.

The Gemar's stressed how important they feel it is for college students in a new place to know their surroundings.

"You can go out and have fun, but not to the extreme that you don't know where you're going, and I hope that everybody learned from this," Claire Gemar said.

Lenny Gemar said for himself and Claire, visiting the site was a way to say goodbye.

"We threw out last pitches to each of the girls, and up in that heavenly softball league someplace where we hope that they are, we know they hit them outta the park."

The investigation

In a press conference early Wednesday morning, officials said they are continuing to investigate the deaths of three missing Dickinson State University students that were discovered in a vehicle in a stock pond Tuesday.

The approximately 10-foot-deep pond was on private property, officials said, and they are unaware of any relationship between the landowner and the girls. The residence was located about 1/8 of a mile north of the pond, officials estimate.

Tuhy said the 1997 Jeep was on its wheels in the water and vehicle doors and windows were all shut. It is unknown whether or not there was an attempt by the girls to exit the vehicle, he added.

"I did personally drive out there this morning about 2:30 or 3 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."

Tuhy said there were no high ridges around the pond and high grass was around the pond.

Kyrstin Gemar, 22, Ashley Neufeld, 21, and Afton Williamson, 20, who all played softball for DSU, were missing and last heard from Sunday night.

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

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

Tuhy said the phone calls helped pinpoint an area of search.

"Without that, we'd probably be looking a long time and a large area," Tuhy said. "We really didn't know where to look."

Officials found tracks leading into the stock pond at about 2:45 p.m. Tuesday. At about 4:10 p.m., the Dickinson Dive and Rescue Team discovered a vehicle submerged. The vehicle, which was Gemar's, was pulled from the pond. At 4:29 p.m., the bodies of the three missing woman and a deceased dog were located and identified inside the vehicle.

"From what we heard before, the girls were probably out doing some stargazing," Tuhy said. "It appeared the vehicle tracks led right into the pond."

Officials said they are not suspecting any foul play.

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

Tuhy said if the girls had called 911, it is unsure whether or not they could have been found sooner.

"My understanding is had they called 911, and with the chip that's in these new phones, if they had been new phones, there could have probably been some location formed out of that," Tuhy said. "But if it would have been timely enough, I don't know."

It is unknown at this time whether drugs or alcohol were a factor in the deaths of the women.

"The information I've got, these were DSU students, well-known, well-respected girls," Tuhy said.

The incident is under investigation and officials say an autopsy will be done, with results to be returned in a week or two. Tuhy said the North Dakota Highway Patrol will be examining the vehicle as well.

DSU President Richard McCallum said classes were canceled Wednesday and will be canceled today from 1 to 5 p.m. to allow for students and staff to attend a memorial service at 2 p.m. in Dorothy Stickney Auditorium in May Hall.

"This is a very sad day for all of us," McCallum said Wednesday. "Our hearts and sympathies go to the families."

Tuhy said he hopes the community can come closer together during this tragic time.

"The impact is going to be great for quite some time," Tuhy said. "Anything like this happens in the community, the sorrow is going to be there, but hopefully, like a lot of other areas and what we've had in the last year, hopefully it brings the community closer together."