For 21 months, Yvonne Baldelli's family searched for the Orange County woman after she disappeared while living with her boyfriend in Panama. They negotiated foreign bureaucracies and tried to make sense of false leads. They spent days treading through swamps on the island where she was last seen.
This week they learned that skeletal remains found on that island belong to the woman. The discovery was bittersweet, said James Faust, her father.
"We're all grieving for her," he said. "But this gets us closer to getting to the person responsible for her murder and getting justice."
Baldelli's boyfriend, Brian Brimager, who lived in Dana Point before moving to Panama, is being held in San Diego on charges of obstruction of justice. It is expected that Panamanian authorities will now seek to extradite him to that country in connection with Baldelli's death.
Baldelli, 41, who also lived in Dana Point, moved with Brimager to Panama in September 2011.
She was looking for a fresh start and took her sewing machines and her King Charles spaniel, Georgia Mae. She planned on making bikinis and beach wraps for tourists. Her father said the couple rented a room at Casa del Sapo, a hotel that juts out into the clear waters of Isla Carenero.
According to federal prosecutors, Brimager almost immediately began emailing the mother of his young daughter, telling her he was planning to return to California to be with her and help raise their child. He never mentioned his relationship with Baldelli.
All the while, prosecutors allege, he was physically abusing his girlfriend in Panama, leaving bruises around her eyes and on her arms, according to an indictment filed in June in federal court in San Diego.
Baldelli was last seen Nov. 26, 2011, at a steakhouse in Bocas del Toro, along with Brimager. Late that evening or early the next morning, prosecutors allege, Brimager killed her and disposed of her body.
The next morning he allegedly used her laptop to search for the words "washing mattress blood stain." Her dog had also disappeared.
Over the next several weeks, Brimager allegedly used Baldelli's email to send fake messages to her family and friends saying she had left him and was in Costa Rica with another man.
But Baldelli's family began to suspect something was wrong. In the weeks and months that followed her disappearance, her parents, sister and other family members made multiple trips to Isla Carenero.
They held fundraisers and candlelight vigils and enlisted volunteers on the island to help with painstaking searches through swamps. Last week, a worker found the remains sealed in a bag on Isla Carenero, according to Panamanian news reports.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Conover said Panamanian authorities confirmed this week that the remains are those of Baldelli.
The months of searching for his daughter — whom he described as happy, outgoing and independent — were agonizing, Faust said.
And now he waits, hoping that his daughter's body will soon be returned to the United States so the family can finally lay her to rest.