Divers solve two more cold-case mysteries

Licence plate from the Ford Freestar (Sunshine State Sonar)
Licence plate from the Ford Freestar (Sunshine State Sonar)

Solving missing-persons cold cases can be a grisly business, but there is no shortage of amateur dive-teams taking up the challenge in the USA – and they were particularly active over the holiday period.

Most recently the Florida group Sunshine State Sonar was able to trace the remains of Sandra Lemire, 47, in a vehicle submerged in a small floodwater-retention pond near Disney World, Orlando, nearly 12 years after her disappearance.

Lemire had left Orlando on 8 May, 2012, driving a red Ford Freestar minivan to Kissimmee to meet a man she had met online. After calling her grandmother, whose car she was using, to tell her that she had arrived, Lemire was last seen driving away from a restaurant in the minivan.

Divers searching the pond (Sunshine State Sonar)
Searching the pond (Sunshine State Sonar)
The recovered Freestar minivan (Sunshine State Sonar)
The recovered Freestar minivan (Sunshine State Sonar)

Sunshine State Sonar had already searched 63 bodies of water for Lemire since July 2022, collaborating with law-enforcement agencies. Then an Orlando Police detective passed on a tip relating to her last phone-call that enabled the divers to narrow down their search. 

Using their sonar scanner at the pond on 30 December, they located a vehicle at a depth of about 4m, and immediately dived to retrieve the licence-plate – which matched that of the Freestar.

Th vehicle along with Lemire’s remains and belongings were recovered by the authorities on New Year’s Eve. “We finally know what happened. We can finally put her beautiful soul at rest,” Lemire’s daughter-in-law Michelle Lewis told Sunshine State Sonar, which says it also solved four other cold cases in the early part of 2023.

Led by a drone

Another search team that documents its volunteer activities on YouTube and social media is Missouri-based Echo Divers. It liaised with Camden County Sheriff's Office in December after videographer James Hinkle had flown his drone over another small pond, this time on private property, and spotted what he thought was a submerged vehicle.

The team had been searching for 59-year-old Army veteran and amputee Donnie Erwin for nearly a year. He had gone missing from his home town of Camdenton on 29 December, 2013, after setting off for an early-morning drive to buy cigarettes.

Echo Divers were allowed to search the pond on foot and by kayak, and found a car that seemed to match the description of Erwin’s silver Hyundai Elantra.

Police and fire-department divers verified that the licence-plate on the submerged vehicle matched that on Erwin’s car. They also found remains, including an artificial hip. 

Erwin’s algae-coated Hyundai (Camden County Sheriff’s Office)
Erwin’s algae-coated Hyundai (Camden County Sheriff’s Office)

Unexplained disappearances can lead to uninformed speculation about the reasons behind them, but in this case Hinkle, on learning early on that Erwin had left his home in the dark and without his spectacles, had suggested that his disappearance could have been purely accidental.

“It’s not all about scuba diving – we use all kinds of technology to aid in search and recovery: drones, graphic design and boats on the ground,” says Echo Divers. “One of the biggest surprises to most people is that the majority of the work is research. We use maps, GIS databases and other forms of public records to choose and eliminate search targets.”

Many US missing-persons volunteer divers were inspired by the original Oregon-based team Adventures With Purpose, which now claims to have solved 29 cold cases.

Also on Divernet: Divers find teenager's body police had missed, Body-recovery divers crack 20th cold case, Private dive-team joins Bulley river search, Reeds not our remit, says Bulley dive volunteer

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