A YouTuber who uses underwater sonar equipment to investigate missing persons cases found a car belonging to two Tennessee teenagers who have been missing for 21 years, potentially bringing an end to the cold case.
It is at least the fourth time since late October that people who investigate cold cases on YouTube have dived and found a submerged vehicle belonging to a missing person.
The teenagers, Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel, both of Sparta, Tenn., were last seen on April 3, 2000, leaving Erin’s home in her 1988 Pontiac Grand Am.
Late last month, Jeremy Sides, 42, who runs the YouTube account Exploring With Nug, searched nearby lakes for a few days before turning his attention to Calfkiller River. Shortly before nightfall on Nov. 30, his sonar device showed that 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 first thing the next morning. It was a match for Erin’s missing Pontiac.
Mr. Sides documented the discovery in a 20-minute YouTube video that includes his phone call to Steve Page, the sheriff of White County, to report the findings. In the video, the sheriff meets Mr. Sides at the site and expresses his thanks: “You just became White County’s hero.”
In a brief telephone interview, the sheriff said that divers recovered human remains on Thursday but that they had not been positively identified. “We do believe it’s them,” Sheriff Page said on Friday. “We found articles that came out of the car and was in the water that leads us to believe it’s them.”
Jeremy Bechtel’s father, Ron Bechtel, said that although the investigation was continuing, the authorities told him that they now thought Jeremy and Erin, who were 17 and 18, had been in a car accident.
“It was like losing him all over again,” Mr. Bechtel said in an interview on Thursday. “We kind of had just had a thin bit of hope that he was still alive.”
Mr. Bechtel, 57, said his son was a well-mannered 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’s and Erin’s families created online fund-raisers to help cover funeral costs.
A Facebook page dedicated to the search for the teenagers included photos of the riverbank near where the car was discovered with a fresh bouquet of flowers and a plaque reading “E & J Gone Home.”
Mr. Sides said that the number of divers investigating cold cases was growing and that over the past two months there had been a particularly high rate of discoveries.
Earlier in November, Mr. Sides found a car associated with a woman who had been missing since 2005, an hour away from Sparta, in Oakridge, Tenn. Also in November, a YouTube group called Chaos Divers reportedly found a car belonging to a couple from Ohio 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 assisted on that search.
Mr. Sides, who dives full time, said that money from YouTube, merchandise sales and donations paid for his expeditions, which require a boat, portable sonar equipment and diving gear. Diving in rivers and lakes is substantially different from ocean diving, 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 freaks some people out pretty good.”
Mr. Sides’s investigations begin on the Charley Project, an online database of missing persons cases. He reads through postings on the site and looks for cases in which a missing person was last seen in a car in an area with large bodies of water. He also looks up online memorials 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 joyful that I could bring closure to so many.”
Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette whose research focuses on missing persons, said that grass-roots search efforts had always played an “integral role” in resolving such cases. This is in part because police agencies often lack the resources or are unwilling to dedicate resources to older cold cases, she added.
“Generally, people are frustrated with the lack of progress police make, and so we get these organizations as a result of that,” Dr. Jeanis said.
She said the risk is that “armchair detectives” get caught up in the case and sensationalize it, which could harm the investigation by, for instance, overwhelming the police with tips that they start to ignore. She also said that inexperienced divers exploring rivers and lakes to investigate a case could be putting themselves in danger.
Michael Alcazar, a retired detective with the New York Police Department, said he was concerned that amateur sleuths could tamper with important evidence, but in a cold case such as the Tennessee disappearances, it could be helpful to have outsiders assist.
“Sometimes these agencies, especially the smaller agencies, they just don’t have the manpower, and maybe the cases have gone cold and they can’t continue the investigation,” Mr. Alcazar said. “Especially something as old as this case, it’s probably just sitting in a file cabinet.”