Shain Gandee lived for the outdoors, often going on muddy, off-road thrill rides in the hills near his West Virginia home. A recent late-night escapade ended in tragedy for the MTV reality show cast member and two others.
The popular Buckwild cast member, 21, was found dead Monday inside a sports utility vehicle belonging to his family. The car was found partially submerged in a deep mud pit about a mile from Gandee's home near Sissonville, authorities said. The bodies of his uncle and another man were also found inside the vehicle.
Kanawha County Sheriff's Cpl. BD Humphreys said the red-and-white 1984 Ford Bronco's muffler was below the surface and that mud covered the passenger side. No foul play is suspected.
Authorities said the cause of the deaths was still under investigation and they refused to speculate on what happened. If the muffler was submerged and the engine kept running, it's possible the cabin of the vehicle could have filled with fatal carbon monoxide from the exhaust.
Shain, nicknamed "Gandee Candy" by fans, was a breakout star of the America television show that followed the antics of a group of young friends enjoying their wild country lifestyle. It was filmed last year, mostly around Sissonville and Charleston. Many of its rowdy exploits were Gandee's idea. In one episode, he turned a dump truck into a swimming pool.
Gandee was a true outdoorsman, shedding modern conveniences such as cell phones and computers. He loved to hunt, ride all-terrain vehicles and go "mudding," or offroad driving. He went mudding in the show's first episode and ruined his pickup truck's motor.
"Shain always rides with these kids in four-wheelers and trucks," said a neighbour, Swanna Frampton, who had known him since he was a small child. "They were just out riding and having a good time."
Frampton said the 21-year-old Gandee "loved to live and have fun. He was a great person. He did what (the show) wanted him to do, but he wasn't like that. He was a real person. If you needed help, if you needed something, he would come help you no matter what."
Humphreys said Gandee, his 48-year-old uncle, David Gandee, and 27-year-old Donald Robert Myers were last seen around 3am on Sunday at a bar and they told people they were going driving off-road.
State police were getting ready to send out an aviation unit to search for the men when authorities received a call on Monday morning. Humphreys said the SUV was found by one of Shain Gandee's friends next to a trail used by four-wheel drive vehicles, about 15 miles outside of Charleston.
The terrain in the Thaxton Hollow area was "very muddy, very rough," Humphreys said, and responders had to use all-terrain vehicles to get to the site.
Humphreys did not provide details on the condition of the bodies.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said the news was devastating for the small community near Charleston.
"It's a very sad day for the Sissonville area and for these families," he said. "This is a small community, and most of us know directly members of these families. We're keeping them in our hearts and prayers."
MTV issued a statement saying it was shocked and saddened to learn of its star's death.
"We are waiting for more information but at this time, our main concern is for the Gandee family and their friends," the statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them. Shain had a magnetic personality, with a passion for life that touched everyone he met and we will miss him dearly."
Shooting for the second season of Buckwild had begun, but MTV spokesman Jake Urbanski said yesterday afternoon that it has been suspended.
MTV said the half-hour series in the old Jersey Shore time slot was pulling in an average of 3 million viewers per episode since its premiere and was the No. 1 original cable series on Thursday nights among 12- to 34-year-olds.
Buckwild has not been short of controversy.
Last week, 24-year-old Salwa Amin was sent back to jail for violating the terms of her bond following a February arrest. She was charged with two counts of drug possession with intent to deliver and initially jailed on $200,000 bond. That was later reduced to $100,000, but Amin remained behind bars without bond on Monday.
State Police say a multi-agency task force arrested Amin and two other people at a Summersville residence after receiving a tip from an informant. A search found oxycodone pills, heroin and $3,000 in cash.
Another cast member, Michael Douglas Burford, was charged in February with driving under the influence.
Urbanski said none of Gandee's colleagues were available for interview and none immediately planned to issue a statement. But their feelings came through on Twitter, where Ashley Whitt called her friend "the most amazing person I've ever known."
"I know you will be watching over me every time I hit a mudhole. You will always be my best friend, I love you!" she wrote.
Cast mate Cara Parrish and others asked fans to pray for Gandee's parents, Loretta and Dale. "This is the emptiest I've ever felt," she wrote in a tweet.