Volunteer divers search for cars and cold cases in Florida
Why it matters: Ken Fleming, founder of St. Petersburg-based Recon Dive Recovery, tells Axios he teams up with Sunshine State Sonar and other divers and drone operators to find cars submerged in Florida's lakes and canals.
- Florida has 1,760 open missing persons cases, according to the Department of Justice.
- Finding a missing person's remains can bring closure to their families and loved ones.
Context: Fleming says drivers veer off the road due to things like dementia, diabetic seizures, self-harm, drugs and alcohol, or foul play.
- The former Marine and IT professional says he started scuba diving, then cave diving. After being involved in rescues himself, he discovered a subculture of people who use sonar to find submerged cars on YouTube.
- They comb through databases of missing people and search near where a person was last seen. They'll dive, check for victims, mark cars with buoys and notify authorities, who may launch investigations and remove the cars.
What they're saying: "We actually jokingly call ourselves the last responders, because we're the ones that go looking when law enforcement has given up," Fleming says.
- He dives in zero-visibility water with gasoline, human remains and toxins.
- As he reaches into a window to feel whether the seat belt is engaged, he thinks, "I might find a pelvis underneath here."
- It's so murky that he gets a car's license plate number by tracing it with his finger.
By the numbers: Since January, Fleming says his group has located 100-plus vehicles and four victims in Florida, including a Davie mother who had been missing for 22 years and a Palm Harbor veteran missing for 17 years.
- In Doral, Fleming's group also found eight cars near Airport Lake and one commercial towing boat. None had victims inside. The vehicles may have been used in criminal activity.
- The team is working on about 100 cold cases statewide.
Of note: The volunteers do not charge for searches, but accept donations for equipment and travel.
The bottom line: Though the work can be gruesome, Fleming focuses on "the bigger mission of what this means: to be able to bring someone home."
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