WACO, Texas – A team of civilian cold case detectives who dived into a river on Wednesday found a car matching the description of a vehicle belonging to a woman who disappeared in 2017. Police have not yet positively identified the car as belonging to Stephanie Torres, who went missing in 2017, but her relatives are standing by, hoping their questions will be answered.
Waco Police, who were present in Brazos Park East on Wednesday, investigated whether the blue and gray 2006 Kia Rio found by divers with Adventures With Purpose belonged to Torres.
Torres was only days away from celebrating her 43rd birthday when she disappeared. She was last seen leaving her home on December 20, 2017, but didn’t take her cellphone, wallet, or medicines.
The car was found in the cold, murky waters of the Brazos River in Cameron Park about an hour after the dive started.
“I’m scared. I’m nervous. I have no words for it at the moment,” daughter Bianca Torres said as the search for the car unfolded.
Adventures With Purpose, which Oregon-based diver Jared Leisek founded, conducted the search in the Brazos River after interacting with the family through social media last year. The group originally organized environmental clearance dives before focusing on searching for missing people.
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Focusing on nearby bodies of water, Leisek focused on a boat ramp in the Brazos River in the 416-acre urban park, where the Brazos and Bosque rivers converge. Stephanie Torres lived nearby.
Family members said Torres, a beloved and hardworking mother, was in excruciating pain from fibromyalgia when she disappeared. It dominated her life, and the drugs she took for it caused depression as a side effect, they said.
She would go to a hot shower every day after work, crying as the warmth of the water eased her pain, said her children, Bianca and Jonathan Torres, who brought NBC News to Waco for the search.
Jonathan Torres said on the last day he saw his mother, they argued about getting a dog, and she left the house. It was not uncommon for her to disappear for two or three days and return. This time she didn’t.
The family thought it possible that Stephanie Torres had decided the pain had been too much and taken her own life, but they hoped they were wrong. She appeared drunk when she left, she added, but it’s unclear if any of those factors contributed to her disappearance.
The family, who filed a missing persons report with the police on December 21, 2017, said their communication with the police was limited. Jonathan and Bianca Torres said they are completely in the dark.
“I had the feeling that they had not contacted us or let us know anything about the matter,” said Bianca Torres.
Officer Garen Bynum, the spokesman for the Waco Police Department, said police learned about the extent of Stephanie Torres’ illness, that she had left her belongings behind and that she could commit suicide a week after her disappearance, which could affect the speed and urgency of the first investigation. .
The department said it has conducted multiple database searches and has looked for recordings of her license plate on highways. They asked the Texas Rangers to do the same. Officials said they also checked pharmacies to see if she had refilled any medicines and posted about her disappearance on social media and shared it with the media. All to no avail, Bynum said. Officers had no reason to believe they would have to search the rivers or Lake Waco looking for Torres, he said.
“I do know that our researchers did everything they could … and just couldn’t come up with anything,” Bynum said.
As the days passed, relatives began to give up and go their separate ways, they said. They tried to stay together, but their mother’s disappearance took a toll on them, especially their younger sister, she added.
“My life got worse — a whole lot worse,” said Jonathan Torres.
The case had grown cold. In December 2021, Leisek contacted Bianca Torres who wanted to help with the case.
The case could be the 17th cold case Adventures With Purpose has helped solve since 2019.
The group is on a week-long journey through the south to conduct similar searches and dives for other missing people whose cases have gone cold. The work of the group is done pro bono.
The group has resolved a number of missing persons cases, including one involving a mother and her toddler who had gone missing 23 years earlier.
The group posts its successful searches on its YouTube channel, which has 1.71 million subscribers. Some viewers tipped off the group about new cases or leads. His online fame has also led to requests for help from families or friends of the missing persons and law enforcement officers.
Leisek co-founded Adventures With Purpose in 2018 with the intention of using their scuba diving skills to clear debris and debris from the country’s waterways. But then they started finding cars – and human remains – and their purpose expanded.
They only assume cases where they have a high probability of finding a vehicle based on their calculations of conditions and geography.
Similar pro bono groups have filled in gaps in police-led dive teams and helped other cases.
More than 600,000 people go missing every year, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Following the death of Gabby Petito, the focus on unsolved missing persons cases, especially those involving women of color has increased.
Petito went missing in August while cross-country skiing with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Her remains were found on September 19 and her death was considered murder. Laundrie was found dead a month later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Leisek and his team have the equipment, time and crowdfunding — resources that local law enforcement sometimes lack — to conduct the dives.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.