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Taucher YouTuber finds car in connection with teenagers missing since 2000

A YouTuber who uses underwater sonar equipment to investigate missing person cases found a car owned by two Tennessee teenagers who have been missing for 21 years, potentially ending the cold case.

It’s at least the fourth time since late October that people investigating cold cases on YouTube have gone underground and found a missing person’s vehicle in hiding.

Teenagers Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel, both of Sparta, Tennessee, were last seen leaving Erin’s home in her 1988 Pontiac Grand Am on April 3, 2000.

Late last month, Jeremy Sides, 42, who runs the YouTube account Exploring With Nug, spent a few days searching nearby lakes before turning to the Calfkiller River. Just before dark on November 30th, his sonar showed that his boat was hovering over a car-shaped object. He spent the night in his van, then went underground to find the make and license plate of the car the first thing that morning. It was a match for Erin’s missing Pontiac.

Mr. Sides documented the discovery on a 20-minute YouTube video that included calling Steve Page, the White County Sheriff, to report the results. In the video, the sheriff meets Mr. Sides on site and thanks him: “You have just become the hero of White County.”

In a brief telephone interview, the sheriff said divers had recovered human remains on Thursday but were not clearly identified. “We believe it is you,” said Sheriff Page on Friday. “We found items that came out of the car and were in the water, which leads us to believe it is them.”

Jeremy Bechtel’s father, Ron Bechtel, said although the investigation continued, authorities said they now believed Jeremy and Erin, who were 17 and 18 years old, were in a car accident.

“It was as if I had lost him again,” said Bechtel in an interview on Thursday. “We only had a little 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 of cancer three years ago.

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

A Facebook page devoted to finding the teenagers featured photos of the riverside near where the car was found with a fresh bouquet of flowers and a badge that read “E&J Gone Home.”

Mr Sides said the number of divers investigating cold cases is increasing and that there has been a particularly high rate of detection in the past two months.

In early November, Mr. Sides found a car linked to a woman missing since 2005 an hour from Sparta in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Also in November, a YouTube group called Chaos Divers reportedly found an Ohio couple’s car that had been missing for three and a half years.

In late October, another YouTube group, Adventures With Purpose, found a body in a sunken vehicle in Texas. Mr. Sides helped with this search.

Mr. Sides, who scuba diving full-time, said money from YouTube, goods sales, and donations were paid for his expeditions that required a boat, portable sonar gear, and scuba gear. Diving in rivers and lakes is very different from diving in the ocean, he said.

“It’s fun, but it’s definitely a claustrophobic feeling because you can’t see much more than two to a meter in front of your face,” said Mr. Sides. “It makes some people pretty freak out.”

Mr. Sides’ investigation begins with the Charley Project, an online database of missing persons cases. He reads postings on the site and looks for cases where a missing person was last seen in a car in a large body of water. He also searches online memorials for further clues and potential contacts.

Mr. Sides said “he was a mixture of every emotion imaginable” when he found Erin’s car.

“I was sad, then overwhelmed,” said Mr. Sides. “At the end of the day, I was happy that I was able to bring so many to graduation.”

Michelle Jeanis, 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 “integrated role” in solving such cases. This is partly because law enforcement agencies often lack the resources or are unwilling to allocate resources for older cold cases, she added.

“In general, people are frustrated with the lack of progress in the police, and that’s why we get these organizations,” said Dr. Jeanis.

She said the danger is that “armchair detectives” could become involved in the case and make it sensational, which could harm the investigation by, for example, bombarding the police with clues that they begin to ignore. She also said that inexperienced divers exploring the rivers and lakes to investigate a case could put themselves at risk.

Michael Alcazar, a retired detective with the New York Police Department, said he was concerned that amateur detectives might manipulate vital evidence, but in a cold case like the Tennessee disappearance, having outsiders might be helpful.

“Sometimes these agencies, especially the smaller ones, just don’t have the staff, and maybe the cases have grown cold and they can’t continue the investigation,” said Alcazar. “Especially something as old as this suitcase is probably just in a filing cabinet.”

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