When YouTuber and amateur investigator Jeremy Beau Sides travelled to Tennessee last month from his home in Georgia, loaded up with scuba, sonar and other exploratory equipment, the expedition hit him harder emotionally than other tasks he’d previously assigned himself.
He was looking near Sparta, Tennessee for two teenagers who disappeared more than 20 years ago. Erin Foster and her friend, Jeremy Bechtel, had last been seen leaving the girl’s home in her 1988 Pontiac Grand Am – on 3 April 2000.
Mr Sides, a 42-year-old father-of-two, found out about the case online; his hobby – which he’s turning into a career- has for years been using everything from metal detectors to sonar to discover interesting hidden or forgotten objects. As the popularity of true crime series skyrocketed in recent times - spurred by covid and expanded streaming services - so did Mr Sides’ interest in applying his skills and curiosity to solving cases.
That’s exactly what he did last month – with his personal experience informing his search for Ms Foster and Mr Bechtel, who were 18 and 17, respectively, when they disappeared.
“These teenagers, they were pretty much the same age” as he would have been at the time, Mr Sides tells The Independent. “So I felt a little more like, ‘Man, these could have been my friends. We could’ve went to high school together.’ And then they vanished.”
He adds: “I remember in high school, I lost two close friends in a car accident - and I remember that heartbreak. All this was running through my head as I was searching for them ... I couldn’t imagine their friends, 20 plus years [later], not having a clue where they’re at - still looking after 20 years.”
Mr Sides found the Pontiac and the missing teenagers after searching the Calfkiller River in Tennessee, which sources told him Ms Foster would have frequently driven by.
“It kind of seems like a dream, almost” the teen girl’s father, Cecil Foster, told Inside Edition following the discovery.
And the man who realised that dream, Mr Sides, is not a professional PI; after high school, he joined the Navy, worked in aviation hydraulics, then went to tech school before working in the automotive industry.
His detective extracurricular activities stem from his natural curiosity, he tells The Independent - and the fact that he’d tried to join his friends mountain biking, complete with all the gear, but hated it. So he sold his cycling equipment and looked for a new pastime.
“I always wanted a metal detector; it’s a cool adult hobby,” he says. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll try that next.’ So I bought me a kit and just started playing with it - and I loved it. It just evolved into the water, maybe because of the heat - it’s hard to be out in the summertime heat in Georgia. Walking around in creeks, at least I was cooling off a little bit.”
He also became plugged into what he calls a “niche” of YouTubers who’ve dedicated themselves to finding missing people across the US.
“There’s about a handful of us around the country who are doing this,” he says. “We dedicate our time and energy into searching for missing persons cases and making videos documenting it” - adding that one of his fellow YouTube detectives has labelled the efforts “open source investigations.”
“There’s no red tape involved,” Mr Sides tells The Independent. “We’re just doing what we do and we make the rules - and end of the day, we try to find these people who are missing. We focus on the waterways because that’s what our specialty is.”
They’re “essentially” independent, he says, but “we’ll send cases to each other - like, ‘Oh, I found this one case in Illinois, and one guy lives closer, so he’ll go check it out’ - and vice versa.
“But yeah, we all have the same objective: Just keep looking and bring closure to these families.”
Before his recent Tennessee discoveries, Mr Sides says, he’d identify his own targets - and often not notify families because “I don’t want to give them false hope that I’m going to bring them answers, and then I strike out ... I don’t want to talk to the family, put a camera in their face.
“Usually I’ll just sneak into town, do my thing ... I’ll go straight to the spot. I’ll plan everything out the day before, and I’ll go straight to the spot I want to search, set up the boat and start shooting sonar - and I’ve got a little camera that I run the whole time I’m on the boat just in case I find anything.
“If I don’t find anything, chances are I don’t do a video,” he tells The Independent. “I don’t tell anyone I was even in town. Then I’ll just keep doing research to see if I can find other places.”
Since his recent Tennessee discoveries, however, the game has changed, Mr Sides says; he’s being inundated with requests from people who want him to find their missing loved ones.
“Everything’s gone crazy,” he says. “My email’s blown up; I’m getting nonstop messages. My channel’s doubled in size almost overnight.”
As of Tuesday, he had 179,000 subscribers.
On Facebook, armchair detectives and the friends and family of missing persons have been flagging cases they want him to investigate - on top of the emails and other messages. But Mr Sides laments the fact that he can’t use his technology for many of them.
“Ninety-five percent of them are just cases of missing people; there’s no cars involved, there’s suspected foul play - and I have to explain to them every time, ‘I would love to help you, but I have no experience tracing missing people.’
Instead, he focuses on searching for items. If there’s a clue that could somehow be found in water - whether a car or something else - that “piques his interest,” he says.
He says his investigations constitute “definitely a mission ... there’s thousands and thousands of missing people in the country alone, and they go back 50, 60 years - and there’s still cars” undiscovered.
“They’re everywhere,” he tells The Independent. “It’s definitely more work to be done. I’m simply obsessed with all the stuff that I get to do, like scuba diving, playing with sonar, video editing. I love all that.
“It’s a huge passion of mine wrapped into one bigger goal.”
And that goal, he says, is bringing the aforementioned closure to families.
“The motivation is helping people,” he says. “I always like helping people, almost to a fault ... The number one thing? I like helping people. Two, the videos are very entertaining, and people like to watch them - so it all intertwines.”
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