07/24/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was the news Julius Erving had been dreading for 39 days of agonizing uncertainty. Around 10:15 p.m. on July 6, Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger arrived at the Basketball Hall of Famer's home in the exclusive gated community of Alaqua, Fla., to tell him and his wife, Turquoise, that the youngest of their four children, 19-year-old Cory, was missing no more. After a search stretching from Miami to Philadelphia, investigators dragging a murky retention pond less than a mile from the Erving house had found Cory's black 1999 Volkswagen Passat earlier that evening under eight feet of water, his body inside.
Despite fears that the teenager, who had battled alcohol and drug problems for years, might have been the victim of violence, Eslinger said there were "no apparent signs of foul play." Authorities say that preliminary indications suggest that Cory, who liked to drive fast, may have lost control of his car on the unpaved, winding road while taking a shortcut home on May 28.
This scenario has provided some "sense of peace and comfort in a very tough situation," says basketball executive Pat Williams, a family friend. The Ervings were also drawing strength, Williams says, from planning a July 12 service to "celebrate his young life," open to the public and featuring friend Patti LaBelle, at the Heartland Community Church near Kissimmee, Fla. "We have learned a lot from this tragedy," said Erving in a written statement. "...We will be a stronger family as a result."