Ronnie Bechtel heard his son’s voice for the last time around 9 p.m. on April 3, 2000. Jeremy called to ask his father for a ride the next day, but when Ronnie arrived, Jeremy was nowhere to be found.
For the next two decades, the Bechtel and Foster families relived those final days on a loop — trying to piece together what could have happened that night and holding out hope that the two friends would one day return home. As they attempted to cope with the lingering mystery, their neighbors in Sparta, a small town in central Tennessee, whispered rumors and steered investigators in wrong directions.
“They were murdered,” some said.
“No, they ran away to Florida.”
“I heard they were involved in a drug operation gone awry.”
The theories were finally silenced earlier this month when Jeremy Sides, a scuba-diving YouTuber who solves cold cases, called White County Sheriff Steve Page to report that, after diving in a local river, he had found Erin’s car with human remains inside.
“I was in doubt until I got there and ran the tags,” Page, who took office in 2018, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I made a promise to the [Foster] family that as long as I was sheriff I’d be looking for these two kids. I did. I have.”
Now, the two families are grappling with grief and closure — how do they reframe the narratives that ran through their minds for so many years? Jeremy and Erin were not brutally murdered. They did not run away. It was probably a freak accident.
“It’s like losing him all over again,” Ronnie, Jeremy’s father, told The Post. “It just shattered my heart again. We always kind of thought through the years that something happened, but I just didn’t know what.”
A resident of Acworth, Ga., a northwestern suburb of Atlanta, Sides never intended to make videos about solving cold cases or finding lost items. He began playing around with a metal detector as a side hobby while running his automotive business. But he had a knack for finding missing or stolen items, so he got more ambitious, learning to scuba dive and eventually diving for cars and then missing people.
“I thought, ‘I wonder if I can figure out a way to … make a living doing it,’ ” Sides, 42, told The Post.
He started documenting his adventures on YouTube in 2016 on his channel “Exploring with Nug,” a nickname his co-workers gave him because he was metal detecting for gold nuggets. He eventually made enough money off the videos to hand over his business to a friend and focus on the searches full time. Sides, who now has more than 120,000 subscribers, finds his targets on a website that lists cold cases, noting that he looks for “awkward” cases, specifically ones of “people who vanished off the planet and vanished in their cars.”
“Cars don’t just disappear,” Sides said. “Nine times out of 10 they’re in the water.”
He found Erin and Jeremy’s case just a few weeks ago. Toward the end of November, he “snuck in” to Sparta without telling anyone of his objectives — he didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Sides surveyed rivers and lakes in and around town using side-scan sonar.
Page first got wind of Sides’s search after a Foster family member asked the sheriff in church one Sunday night if he’d seen the video about Erin and Jeremy. Sides said he was unsuccessful but noted he’d come back to Sparta in a few weeks to try again.
After watching the video, the sheriff realized that Sides was using technology the department didn’t have access to, so he reached out and offered to work with the amateur investigator. Page suggested Sides look in Calfkiller River, which runs along Highway 84 in town. The sheriff said he recently found a missing-persons report from 2000 that had been misfiled. It shed more light on the teens’ whereabouts that night and indicated they drove on that road.
Sides returned to the area Nov. 30 and soon spotted a car in the river. He returned the next day for the dive, confirming it was a Pontiac Grand Am and detaching the license plate to bring back to the surface. The numbers and letters matched the ones on the missing teens’ car.
“I don’t have an easy way to say it,” Sides told Page in his YouTube video after the dive, “but I found them.”
Over the next several hours, the sheriff’s office worked to extract the remains and the car from the river — one that Page has driven by countless times. They suspect the teens lost control of the Pontiac and went into the water. There was no guard rail along the road in 2000.
“We have gone in wells, dug up areas, we have used ground-penetrating equipment looking for bodies,” Page said. “[But] it was right under our noses the whole time. … It’s heart-wrenching to know it was that simple, and it was made that hard because of all the rumors and horror stories through the years.”
The medical examiner’s office has not yet confirmed the remains belong to Erin and Jeremy, but Page is confident the findings will prove they were in the car.
On the evening of April 3, 2000, Jeremy went with Erin to a party in a rural part of town, Page said. Their parents suspected something was off when the two weren’t home the next morning. Cecil, Erin’s father, was out of town for work that night but assured his wife, Leigh Ann, that Erin would probably be back in a few days.
After a week, the Foster family called police. From the start, law enforcement fumbled the investigation, Page and the families agreed. They never searched Erin or Jeremy’s rooms and didn’t bring their friends from the party into the station for questioning, Ronnie, 57, said.
But rumors spread rapidly around town — so fast that law enforcement got derailed, following leads that didn’t make sense to the families. Some people claimed to have spotted the teens, while others said they were killed and seen “in the back of a truck with blood coming out the back,” Cecil said. But the families never believed the teens ran away. They had good relationships with their parents and no reason to skip town. They didn’t have any money; Erin “didn’t even take a toothbrush,” Cecil, 65, said in an interview with The Post.
“People could be cruel sometimes,” he added.
Leigh Ann, 62, quit her job because people were constantly talking about the case, Cecil said. The couple, who have been married for 42 years, have kept to themselves for the past two decades and coped in different ways. Cecil said he took medication to calm his nerves and turned to drinking “to wash the troubles away.”
Both families became accustomed to growing hopeful about leads, only to be disappointed. Ronnie said he believed the stress and worry took a toll on Jeremy’s mother. She died four years ago of cancer.
So when Sides entered the picture, they couldn’t believe the nightmare they lived for 21 years was finally coming to an end.
“Now we just have to deal with losing this glimmer of hope we had that they may have been alive somewhere, Now, we’re sure that they’re not,” Cecil said. “So it’s a different hurt … there’s something different about it. I can’t explain it.”
Sides left town before the families could thank him in person. Cecil and Ronnie said they hope to speak to him soon.
“I was very humbled that I could just help out,” Sides said. “I would like to think the police did what they could. But this one just slipped through the cracks.”
As a thank you to the sheriff, Cecil and Leigh Ann gave Erin’s license plate to Page.
“They believed in me that I would never give up, and I didn’t, and it worked,” Page said. “It meant so much to them and so much to me. These are my people.”
Ronnie is thankful for a “sense of closure.”
“I can bury my son,” he said. “I’ve prayed that if he’s not on this Earth, that he’s with Jesus and with mama, and there’s no doubt they’ve all seen him by now and know what’s happened.”