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May 19, 2023

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A heartbroken family fears the worst after a body was found in a submerged car by a dive team searching for a missing California man who owned the vehicle.

Jacob VanZant, 24, disappeared two months ago on February 17 when he was last seen leaving a sushi restaurant in his hometown of Lodi. His childhood sweetheart Celestial Riate, his girlfriend of nine years, had desperately appealed for information about her missing partner, saying he was simply picking-up takeout after work for the couple when “he stepped out of that door and it’s almost like he vanished.”

Despite the publicity campaign and the police search, it was a volunteer team of divers who found VanZant’s car submerged in a body of water over the weekend. Although the remains have not yet been officially identified, the discovery suggests the search to find VanZant has ended tragically, with family members reportedly confirming they believe the body is his.

An organization called Adventures With Purpose (AWP), a volunteer underwater search and recovery dive team, revealed its members had found VanZant’s car, a white 2004 Honda Pilot, in a slough bordering a road on Saturday.

Cecilware cl200 picture of missing jacob vanzant
Police released this photo during the search for missing 24-year-old Jacob VanZant. His family fears the worst after a body was found in his submerged car over the weekend.
Lodi Police Department

AWP released a statement about the sad find during a YouTube livestream the following day, with the title: “We found Jacob Vanzant.” The video was captioned: “On April 15, 2023, AWP found a White Honda Pilot, 18 feet underwater at the end of Eight Mile Road between Lodi and Stockton California, with license plate number: 5JCB311. Remains were found inside believed to be those of Jacob Vanzant, the missing 24-year-old young man[…] Thank you everyone for your support and assistance.”

During the 27-minute stream, an AWP representative said the organization had become involved after “the family reached out to us.” He added that VanZant had some alcoholic cocktails while waiting for his food order and had allegedly been seen driving “a little erratic” afterward.

Discussing the dive, he said the numberplate of the submerged vehicle proved it was VanZant’s car, “We were able to identify there was a male individual that was with the vehicle, and I was also able to identify that this male individual was wearing a hoodie, which was […] something that Jacob was also wearing. We can’t say with 100 percent certainty, ‘We found Jacob today.’ [But] we are very confident in saying we found Jacob.”

He added: “The front windshield was blown out and with Jacob, and where we found him, he was doing everything he could to make his way out of the vehicle.”

Pictures shared by VanZant’s family during the weekslong search for him showed him hugging his pregnant girlfriend, and a baby registry website was registered to him and Riate, with a note saying their child was due in June 2022.

Riate reportedly told local news station Fox 40 that she believes the body in the car is her partner’s, although she was too upset to talk on camera. She released a statement instead, saying: “Jacob is loved by all, he is a son, a brother, a father, and a best friend[…] He will always be a part of me.”

The Lodi Police Department reportedly confirmed to news station KCRA 3 that the vehicle was indeed VanZant’s, but said detectives were waiting for the medical examiner to determine the identity of the person found inside.

Newsweek has reached out to Lodi Police Department through its Facebook page for further information and comment.

The case comes amid several recent searches for missing people that have focused on waterways.

Just last week, teacher Robert Heikka, who had been missing for three years, was found in his car submerged at the bottom of a canal in Florida. His body was found by the Sunshine State Sonar Search Team, a volunteer search team, which used specialist equipment to locate his vehicle.

And divers sadly recovered the bodies of Lotus drummer Chuck Morris and his son Charley, 20, who both vanished during a kayaking trip in Arkansas last month. The pair were found 24 days after going missing with the help of underwater drones in waters that exceeded depths of 180 feet.

However, search divers have so far failed to find missing Navy sailor Seamus Gray, who vanished near Waukegan Harbor on the banks of Lake Michigan in Illinois. The 21-year-old was asked to leave a bar for being too intoxicated on March 18, but has not been seen since.

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