Scuba Diving YouTuber Finds Car Tied To Missing Teens Since 2000

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A YouTuber who uses underwater sonar equipment to investigate missing persons cases has found a car belonging to two Tennessee teenagers who have been missing for 21 years, potentially putting an end to the cold case.

This is at least the fourth time since the end of October that people investigating cold cases on YouTube have dived and found a submerged vehicle belonging to a missing person.

The teens Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel, both of Sparta, Tenn., Were last seen on April 3, 2000, leaving Erin’s home in his 1988 Pontiac Grand Am.

At the end of last month, Jeremy Sides, 42, who runs the Exploring With Nug YouTube account, scoured nearby lakes for a few days before turning to the Calfkiller River. Shortly before nightfall on November 30, his sonar device showed his boat was floating above a car-shaped object. He spent the night in his van, then dived to identify the car’s make and license plate number the next morning. It was a game for Erin’s missing Pontiac.

Mr Sides documented the find in a 20-minute YouTube video that included his phone call to Steve Page, the White County Sheriff, to report the finds. In the video, the sheriff meets Mr. Sides at the site and expresses his thanks, “You just became the hero of White County.”

In a brief telephone interview, the sheriff said divers recovered human remains on Thursday but had not been identified with certainty. “We think it’s them,” Sheriff Page said on Friday. “We found some items that got out of the car and were in the water, which leads us to believe it was them.”

Jeremy Bechtel’s father Ron Bechtel said although the investigation is continuing, authorities have told him they now believe Jeremy and Erin, who were 17 and 18, were in a car accident.

“It was like losing him again,” Bechtel said in an interview Thursday. “We kind of had a little bit of hope that he was still alive.”

Mr Bechtel, 57, said his son was a well-behaved teenager who loved rap music and “had a kind soul and a big heart”. Jeremy’s mother, Rhonda Ledbetter, died three years ago from cancer.

After the car was discovered, friends of Jeremy and Erin’s families set up online fundraisers to help cover funeral costs.

A Facebook page dedicated to finding the teens included photos of the riverbank near where the car was discovered with a bunch of fresh flowers and a plaque reading “E&J Gone Home.”

Mr Sides said the number of divers investigating cold cases was increasing and that over the past two months the rate of discoveries had been particularly high.

Earlier in November, Mr Sides found a car associated with a woman who has been missing since 2005, an hour outside of Sparta, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Also in November, a YouTube group called Chaos Divers reportedly found a car belonging to an Ohio couple who had been missing for three and a half years.

In late October, another YouTube group, Adventures With Purpose, found a body in a submerged vehicle in Texas. Mr. Sides participated in this research.

Mr Sides, who dives full-time, said YouTube money, merchandise sales and donations paid for his expeditions, which require a boat, portable sonar equipment and snorkeling gear. Diving in rivers and lakes is significantly different from diving in the sea, he said.

“It’s fun, but it’s definitely a claustrophobic feeling because you can’t really see much more than two to three feet in front of your face,” Mr. Sides said. “It scares some people quite a bit.”

Mr Sides’ investigations begin on Project Charley, an online database of missing persons cases. He browses the posts on the site and searches for cases in which a missing person was last seen in a car in an area with large bodies of water. He also searches for memorials online for more clues and potential contacts.

Mr. Sides said “he was a mixture of all the emotions you can think of” when he found Erin’s car.

“I was sad, then overwhelmed,” Mr. Sides said. “At the end of the day, I was happy that I could end so many people.”

Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette whose research focuses on missing persons, said grassroots search efforts have always played an “integral role” in resolving such cases. This is in part because police services are often under-resourced or unwilling to devote resources to older cases, she added.

“In general, people are frustrated with the lack of progress in policing, and so we have these organizations because of it,” Dr Jeanis said.

She said the risk was that the “wheelchair detectives” would get drawn into the case and sensationalize her, which could hamper the investigation, for example by overwhelming the police with advice they are starting to ignore. She also said inexperienced divers exploring rivers and lakes to investigate a case could put themselves at risk.

Michael Alcazar, a retired New York Police Department detective, said he was concerned amateur sleuths could tamper with important evidence, but in a case as cold as the Tennessee disappearances it might be worth doing appeal to strangers.

“Sometimes these agencies, especially the smaller ones, just don’t have the manpower, and maybe the cases have turned cold and they can’t investigate further,” said Mr. Alcazar. “Especially something as old as this, he’s probably just sitting in a filing cabinet.”


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