Ronnie Bechtel last heard his son’s voice 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 seen.
Jeremy’s friend, Erin Foster, was also missing. Her brother, Will, was probably one of the last people to see her. Erin (18) and Jeremy (17) picked Will up from an arcade that evening and dropped him off at home before heading back to a party. Erin never came back.
Over the next two decades, the Bechtel and Foster families relived those final days in a loop — trying to recap what could have happened that night and hoping that the two friends would one day return home. As they tried to face the lingering mystery, their neighbors in Sparta, a small town in central Tennessee, whispered rumors and steered investigators in the wrong direction.
“They were murdered,” some said.
“No, they ran away to Florida.”
“I heard they were involved in a botched drug operation.”
The theories were finally silenced this month when Jeremy Sides, a diving YouTuber who solves cold cases, called White County Sheriff Steve Page to report that after diving into a local river, he found Erin’s car with human remains in it. found it.
“I hesitated until I got there and went through 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 would look for these two children. I did. I have.”
Now the two families struggle with grief and closure – how do they reframe the stories that have been going through their heads for so many years? Jeremy and Erin were not brutally murdered. They didn’t run away. It was probably a freak accident.
“It’s like losing him all over again,” Ronnie, Jeremy’s father, told The Post. “It broke my heart again. We always thought over the years that something had happened, but I just didn’t know what.”
Sides, a resident of Acworth Ga., a northwestern suburb of Atlanta, never intended for him to make videos about solving cold cases or finding lost items. He started playing with a metal detector as a side hobby while running his car business. But he had a knack for finding missing or stolen items, so he got more ambitious, learning to dive and eventually to cars and then missing people.
“I thought, ‘I wonder if I can think of a way to… make a living out of it,'” Sides, 42, told The Post.
He started documenting his adventures on YouTube in 2016 on his channel ‘Exploring with Nug’, a nickname his colleagues gave him because he was detecting metal for gold nuggets. In the end, he made enough money from the videos to transfer his business to a friend and focus on the searches full time. Sides, which now has more than 120,000 subscribers, finds its targets on a cold case website, noting that it looks for “awkward” cases, particularly those of “people who disappeared from the planet and disappeared in their cars.” ‘.
“Cars don’t just disappear,” Sides said. “Nine times out of ten they are in the water.”
He found Erin and Jeremy’s case just a few weeks ago. Towards the end of November, he sneaked into Sparta without telling anyone his objectives – he did not want to give hope to anyone. Sides explored rivers and lakes in and around the city using side-scan sonar.
Sheriff Page first got wind of Sides’s search after a family member of Foster asked the sheriff at the church one Sunday evening if he’d seen the video about Erin and Jeremy. Sides said he was unsuccessful, but noted that he would come back to Sparta in a few weeks to try again.
After watching the video, the sheriff realized that Sides was using technology that the department had no access to, so he reached out and offered to work with the amateur detective. Page suggested Sides look in Calfkiller River, which runs along Highway 84 in the city. The sheriff said he recently found a 2000 missing persons report that had been misfiled. It shed more light on the whereabouts of the teens that night and indicated they were on that road.
Sides returned to the area on November 30 and soon spotted a car in the river. He returned for the dive the next day, confirmed it was a Pontiac Grand Am and detached the license plate to return to the surface. The numbers and letters matched those 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.”
For the next several hours, the sheriff’s office worked to retrieve the remains and the car from the river—a car Page had passed countless times. They suspect the teens lost control of the Pontiac and went into the water. There was no guardrail along the road in 2000.
“We went into wells, excavated areas, we used ground-penetrating equipment to search for bodies,” Page said. “[But] it was right under our noses the whole time… It’s heartbreaking to know it was so easy, and it was made so difficult by all the rumors and horror stories over the years.”
The coroner’s office has not yet confirmed that the remains belong to Erin and Jeremy, but Page is confident the findings will prove they were inside the car.
On the evening of April 3, 2000, Jeremy went to a party with Erin in a rural part of town, Page said. Their parents suspected something was wrong when the two were not home the next morning. Cecil, Erin’s father, was out of town for work that evening, but assured his wife, Leigh Ann, that Erin would probably be back in a few days.
After a week, the Foster family called the police. From the start, law enforcement botched the investigation, and Page and the families agreed. They never searched Erin’s or Jeremy’s rooms or took their friends from the party to the station for questioning, said Ronnie, 57.
But rumors quickly spread through the city—so fast that the police derailed and followed clues that didn’t make sense to the families. Some people claimed to have seen the teens, while others said they were killed and seen “in the back of a truck with blood coming out of the back,” Cecil said. But the families never believed that the teens ran away. They were close to their parents and had no reason to leave town. They had no money; Erin “didn’t even take a toothbrush,” Cecil, 65, said in an interview with The Post.
“People can be cruel at times,” 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 been on their own for the past two decades and have tackled it in different ways. Cecil said he took medication to calm his nerves and turned to drinking “to wash the trouble away.”
Both families got used to getting hopeful about clues, but were disappointed. Ronnie said he believed the stress and worry were taking their toll on Jeremy’s mother. She died of cancer four years ago.
So when Sides came into the picture, they couldn’t believe the nightmare they lived in for 21 years was finally coming to an end.
“Now we just have to deal with the loss of this glimmer of hope we had that they might be alive somewhere. Now we know for sure they aren’t,” Cecil said. “So it’s a different pain… There’s something else going on. I can not explain.”
Sides left town before the families could thank him personally. Cecil and Ronnie said they hope to see him soon.
“I was very humbled that I could just help,” said Sides. “I would like to think that the police did what they could. But this one just slipped through the cracks.”
As a thank you to the sheriff, Cecil and Leigh gave Ann 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.”
The families plan to hold separate funerals but a joint memorial service to celebrate Jeremy and Erin’s short lives. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover the costs.
Ronnie is grateful for a ‘sense of closure’.
“I can bury my son,” he said. “I’ve prayed that if he’s not on this earth, he’ll be with Jesus and with Mom, and there’s no doubt they’ve all seen him now and know what happened.”