Skeletal remains found Tuesday inside a backpack in Panama may belong to Yvonne Baldelli, an American woman who went missing in that country nearly three years ago.
Authorities in Panama will now compare the DNA found in the remains with that of Baldelli's immediate family members to determine if it is indeed her. That will take at least one or two weeks to accomplish.
"There is plenty of reason to believe that it is her, but we won’t know definitively until there is a DNA test,” Michelle Faust, a Yuma resident and Baldelli's sister, told the Yuma Sun Wednesday afternoon. “If this turns out to be my sister, it is horrible – horrible to know this is something that happened to a human being that is loved and wanted in a family."
Baldelli moved to Panama in September 2011 along with her ex-boyfriend Brian Brimager, a retired Marine now living in San Diego. She was reportedly last seen on Nov. 26, 2011, leaving a restaurant with Brimager on Isla Carenero in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama.
In May 2012, Panamanian police began investigating Baldelli's disappearance as a homicide.
There have been several efforts to find Baldelli's remains since her disappearance, including joint operations by the Panamanian Directorate of Judicial Investigation, members of the Panama Public Ministry and the FBI. There were also searches of the island conducted by family members, including Faust. Baldelli's body was never found – possibly until now.
“We searched the island high and low and through the swamps," Faust said. "We didn’t find anything, but it is very easy to hide and lose things in the jungle.”
On June 27, Brimager was arrested after being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of obstruction of justice and making false statements in connection with the case. The indictment accuses Brimager of killing Baldelli and then allegedly creating a cover story to explain her whereabouts – even going so far as to impersonate Baldelli via email “in an attempt to trick her friends and family into believing she was still alive, thereby obstructing, influencing and impeding investigation into her disappearance and suspected death.”
The indictment also accuses Brimager of trying to dispose of evidence, including some of Baldelli's personal belongings and a bloody mattress.
Brimager has not been charged with homicide, either in Panama or in the United States.
“It if turns out to be her, then that is evidence" a homicide was indeed committed, Faust said.
According to Panama-Guide.com, it was a Panamanian man living on Isla Carenero who made the "gruesome discovery" of the skeletal remains when he came across a "green military-style" backpack while collecting firewood.
The man reportedly thought the bag may have belonged to a tourist who had been robbed by a local thief and later discarded in the jungle after any valuables had been removed. But when the man looked inside the bag he saw a human skull. The man dropped the bag and contacted law enforcement.
Investigators dispatched to the area confirmed the bag contained a woman's skull and various bones – although not enough to create a complete skeleton. They also found women's clothes in the bag.
An investigator working the case noted that "we are operating under the presumption this is the body of a woman, based on the size and shape of the skull and the presence of the woman's clothing. We are proceeding under the assumption it could very well be the remains of Yvonne Baldelli, which will of course have to be proven through comprehensive scientific and forensic testing."
If the remains are determined to belong to Baldelli, her family can now "bring her home and give her a proper burial,” Faust said. "For me … the most important thing is that she be laid to rest where she belongs – close to family.”