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ID of skeletal remains brings closure, questions

Posted at 12:01 PM, Feb 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-26 18:37:38-05

Inside Kathleen Howarth's Maryland office is a bulletin board is overflowing with pictures, missing person's fliers and pictures of her father George.

George 'Skip' Zelaya went missing on January 13, 2005.

"My only prayer for 11 years has been 'God please let me know where my dad is' and it took 11 years, but he finally answered," said a tearful Howarth over a FaceTime interview with ABC Action News.

Earlier this week, Citrus County Sheriff's deputies informed Howarth and her siblings bones they found in a wooded area near S. Mason Creek Road and S. Garcia Road back in January 2015 belong to Zelaya.  The remains were just two blocks from her father's home.

"I knew 11 years ago, probably after the first year that he was no longer on this Earth," she added.

But Howarth and her siblings never gave up looking for their beloved father.  They created webpages, fliers and even stickers in an effort to find him.

Immediately after he went missing, Howarth and her siblings flew down to Florida to search.

"When me and my siblings went to Florida 11 years ago, when this first happened, we drove by his house and that meant we drove right by him," Howarth said.

JANUARY 13, 2005: GEORGE 'SKIP' ZELAYA GOES MISSING

Zelaya, 61, of 5711 Sea Otter Path, was last seen Jan. 13, 2005, when he left his home in the early morning, according to investigators.

At the time, he was divorced but still living with his ex-wife Paula.

Paula Zelaya, who still resides in Homosassa, spoke to ABC Action News over the phone. 

According to Zelaya, she and George were on good terms and stayed living together for financial reasons.  She says she left out to go bowling and when she returned, George was gone along with his car.

George's car was found abandoned in a Publix parking lot of U.S. 19 five days later, roughly six miles from his home.

"George would never have walked that far," said Zelaya.

Zelaya explained George was not in the best health and suffered from cluster headaches.

"I really loved him," she said.

Howarth remembers

LETTERS, RECORDINGS SHOW UP IN THE MAIL

On Jan. 25, 2005, George's brother, Joseph, allegedly received two envelopes in the mail.

Inside one envelope was George's driver's license and a check card.

The second envelope, according to Howarth, contained three checks, along with a note that read: "After you cash this there should be about 1,300.00 left use the card pin … or use the checks. Remember, you're on the account too. Sorry. Skip."

"The last words said, 'Sorry. Skip. And, I don't know how to take that," Howarth said.

ABC Action News was unable to talk with Joseph because has since passed away.

On January 26, 2005, Paula Zelaya says a friend of hers contacted Joseph and informed Joseph that she had received an envelope with an audio tape. The tape allegedly contained recordings of conversations Paula had over the telephone with her friends about other men.

"He was always recording me on the phone," Paula Zelaya explained.

ABC Action News requested a copy of the letter and the audio tapes from investigators but were told they cannot be released as this is still considered an on-going investigation.

DAUGHTER: JESSICA LUNSFORD CASE TOOK PRECEDENCE OVER FATHER'S CASE

On February 23, 2005, Jessica Lunsford was snatched from her Homosassa bed, raped and then buried alive.

The 9-year-old's body was found three weeks later wrapped in garbage bags, her hands bound with wire.

Convicted sex offender John Couey would be arrested and later convicted in the case.

Jessica had been buried at the home of Couey's half-sister, who lived within sight of the Lunsford home.

Howarth felt her father's case was put to the side.

Paula Zelaya recalls coming home and investigators searching a wooded area and creek by her home.  She thought with all the police presence George had been found.  It turned out, investigators were searching for Lunsford.

Howarth is left to wonder, if the area her father was found had been searched for Lunsford, how was his body not found back then?

"That is one of my questions.  Where did you all search?  If they did search that area, and he wasn't there, then I am more sure, myself, that it would be homicide, thinking that somebody then put him there," Howarth questioned.

INVESTIGATION CONTINUES, CAUSE OF DEATH STILL NOT KNOWN

According to Howarth, the family's hope has been replaced by grief and even more questions.

"To me, there are two possibilities, one is homicide and the other is suicide.  I have no clue which it is and I am not sure we will ever know," Howarth said.

However, Howarth highly doubts her father would take his own life.  She says she visit him in October 2004, along with her sisters, and he was in high spirits.

"My dad loved nothing more than spending time with us," Howarth explained.

Howarth recalls her father driving them to the airport and them all grabbing a beer before their flight.

"Us girls were crying because we were leaving him.  Little did we know we would never see him again.  We were just crying because we wished we could be with him all the time, have him a part of our daily lives.  We are standing there, tears flowing and he says, 'Ya'll better stop that, your going to make me cry,'" Howarth reminisced.

Howarth and her siblings are planning to come to Citrus County within the next two weeks to meet with investigators and bury their father.

"I am not sure we are ever going to know [how he died] and that scares me but at the same time, at least I can have my dad back," Howarth concluded.