An amateur investigator and diver who runs a YouTube channel has helped police solve a ten-year-old missing person’s case in Missouri. In December 2013, 59-year-old disabled veteran Donald Erwin disappeared after going out for cigarettes. The Vietnam vet left home in his Hyundai Elantra as he had done many times before but was never seen again, according to the New York Times.
The case went cold even though Erwin’s family tried to keep their hope of finding him alive with periodic searches in the area near the man’s trailer home in the central Ozarks. They had resigned themselves to never finding trace of Erwin when a YouTuber named James Hinkle reached out to the family saying he found Erwin’s car in a pond five miles away from his home. Per the NYT:
For nearly a decade, Mr. Erwin’s family, together with some friends and locals, have scoured the hilly region near his home in Camdenton, Mo., for clues. “I did not stop for nine years,” Mr. Erwin’s sister, Yvonne Erwin-Bowen, said in an interview, noting that she would travel from her home in Kansas City at least twice a year to search. Mr. Erwin’s wife has since died.
By last year, Ms. Erwin-Bowen, 62, had begun to lose steam. “I didn’t go look for my brother one time,” she said. “I literally put it in God’s hands.”
Then, last month, Ms. Erwin-Bowen received a call from a friend: A scuba diver had found her brother’s car about five miles from his home, submerged in a pond…
James Hinkle and the volunteer diver team behind the search-and-recovery channel Echo Divers had been interested in the Erwin case for years, during which time the Camden County Sheriff’s Office and local police failed to locate the missing man. Hinkle tells CNN Erwin lived “an hour and a half” away from him, and he decided he could help with the search.
Hinkle looked for Erwin for a year and published videos to chronicle the search. He visited nearby bodies of water that had reportedly been scoured by police but he took a different approach than the authorities, as KSHB describes:
…Hinkle, along with another true crime junkie acting as his partner, planned to wait until the winter so algae obscuring the water would be dead and nearby trees would have lost their leaves.
Hinkle finally found luck retracing possible routes from Erwin’s home to the convenience store where he bought cigarettes, then pinpointing roadside cliffs steep enough to hide an overturned car from passing drivers.
From there, Hinkle flew his drone by a pond so tiny he had previously written it off, where he found a tire.
When he returned a few days later with a sonar-equipped kayak and his camera to find a large car in the middle of the pond’s shallow waters, he called the sheriff.
There in the middle of a shallow pond was Erwin’s silver 2002 Hyundai Elantra. Something that resembled a car was visible from the surface of the water, and Hinkle had been drawn to that particular pond in the first place by a floating tire. Hinkle called the sheriff to the scene and the local fire department sent its divers. They verified it was, indeed, Erwin’s car and cadaver dogs later alerted the authorities to the possibility of human remains in the water.
Divers returned some days later and recovered those remains along with an artificial hip “consistent with one Mr. Erwin had,” according to the sheriff. The authorities said they had to verify that the remains belonged to Erwin, but said they were confident that would be the case thus concluding the investigation.
Erwin’s sister, who had been part of the annual searches for the missing man, believes that her brother committed suicide after being told he needed a second amputation in addition to an earlier procedure that left him without one of his legs. She tells the NYT that her brother didn’t want to be a burden on anybody.
The Erwin case is just one of the latest that YouTubers have helped solve. Many of these amateur investigators and divers have located cars in bodies of water that police have overlooked. And even though they’ve offered grim closure to the families of those who’ve gone missing, they’ve brought closure nonetheless.
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