Aug 9, 2023 - News

Volunteer divers search for cars and cold cases in Florida

Recon Dive Recovery searches Florida lakes and canals for submerged cars and victims. Image courtesy of Ken Fleming.

Teams search Florida lakes for submerged vehicles and victims. Image courtesy of Ken Fleming

Divers who found 32 vehicles submerged in Doral's Airport Lake near NW 97th Avenue and the Dolphin Expressway last weekend are volunteers who work on missing person cold cases.

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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