What we know about the disappearance and death of University of Missouri student Riley Strain

The 22-year-old University of Missouri student’s body was recovered from the Cumberland River two weeks after he disappeared, Dan Gooding, Mike Bedigan and Katie Hawkinson report

Sunday 24 March 2024 14:37 GMT
Riley Strain disappearewhile on a night out in Nashville, Tennessee on Friday 8 March 2024
Riley Strain disappearewhile on a night out in Nashville, Tennessee on Friday 8 March 2024 (Metropolitan Nashville Police Department)

University of Missouri student Riley Strain was out with his fraternity brothers in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday 8 March when he disappeared.

He’d been asked to leave a bar the Delta Chi group were hanging out in, shortly before 9.45pm, and said he was going back to their hotel.

Two weeks after he walked out of the bar, his body was discovered in the Cumberland River, some eight miles downstream from Nashville. An initial autopsy revealed no signs of foul play-related trauma.

Riley Strain: Body found in river identified as missing Nashville student

Here is everything we know about the disappearance and death of Riley Strain.

What happened to Riley Strain?

According to the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, 22-year-old Riley Strain was last seen on Friday 8 March.

He was at a bar in the Broadway area of the city, Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink, his family has said, and was asked to leave the nightspot at around 9.45pm.

Strain’s friends called him and he said he was going to head back to their hotel.

The young man was then seen on CCTV footage wearing a two-tone shirt, crossing 1st Avenue North to Gay Street at 9:47pm. His path was taking him further away from his hotel, and closer to the Cumberland River.

The last pings from his cellphone put him near a park in the proximity of the river on the night of 8 March.

The last time Strain was seen was on surveillance video as he was crossing to Gay Street.

Metro Nashville Police released body camera footage on 18 March showing Strain speaking to a police officer on the night of his disappearance. In the video, the officer sees Strain walking down the street and asks him how he is doing. Strain greets the officer and says he’s doing fine before continuing down the street.

Police also revealed that the final text message sent from Strian’s phone before it died said “good lops,” but it’s currently unclear what that might have meant. Some social media commenters suggested it meant “low on power, sorry,” but a friend of Strain’s, Chris Dingman, told NewsNation that Mr Strain’s phone was not low on power at the time that text was sent.

Riley Strain had visited Nashville before

Strain had been visiting Nashville from the University of Missouri, known as Mizzou, with his fraternity.

The Delta Chi group was on its annual spring trip. The frat said that it and the university were actively involved with the search.

It was reported that Strain, a senior, had made the trip to Nashville before.

His mother and stepfather are from Springfield, Missouri, around 160 miles from the college campus in Columbia.

The search for Riley Strain

On 14 March, Chris Dingman, a friend of the family, said that they had had confirmation from two separate homeless encampments that Strain had been in the area.

“I was talking to family members currently in downtown Nashville searching, and we have found another homeless person that had acknowledged that Riley had been in that area,” Mr Dingman told WSMV4.

“This now makes two people that has done confirmation. These are areas that the camera had stops. We don’t have any footage. Basically, the areas where his phone quit pinging. We now do have visual confirmation from two homeless camps that Riley was in that area.”

On the afternoon of 14 March, police said there were currently no signs of foul play in Strain’s disappearance, but that investigations by water and air would continue. Police used boats equipped with sonar to search the Cumberland River, and a drone and helicopter to search the riverbanks. No evidence has turned up suggesting Strain fell into the river.

A body was found floating in the Cumberland River on Sunday 17 March, but it did not match Strain’s description.

Bank card found near river

On the same day, a pair of women searching for Strain found his bank card on the banks of the Cumberland River.

Metro Nashville Police Sgt Bob Neilsen said, “In a missing person’s case, people go missing for various reasons. Some are voluntary, some are not. Some could be due to a medical incident.”

“Right now, we have no idea what happened with this gentleman. We don’t believe there was any crime involved, however. All of our resources right now are dedicated to locating him,” the police sergeant added.

On 19 March, Strain’s family held a press conference announcing that the United Cajun Navy — a disaster relief and search and rescue organisation founded during Hurricane Katrina — would be coordinating the volunteer search and adding additional volunteers to the ground effort.

Dave Flagg, the United Cajun Navy’s national director of operations, told reporters that the group was bringing a hoverboat to assist the river search. The group has been operating an airboat in the area since the search began.

On 20 March, police began searching the Cheatham Lock and Dam near Ashland City for any trace of Strain.

On 21 March, Mr Dingman confirmed that police had obtained new surveillance footage showing Strain approaching the James Robertson Parkway bridge, which spans the Cumberland River. That footage has not been released to the public at the time of this report.

Bar owner Luke Bryan speaks out

Country music star Luke Bryan, whose bar Strain had been at before his disappearance, spoke out about the incident on social media.

“Y’all this is scary,” Bryan posted on his Instagram story. “Praying for his safe return.”

The singer, 47, said TC Restaurant Group, which operates and owns Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink, was working closely with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department on its investigation.

The bar was providing security footage and any other information which could help locate Strain.

The bar is located in the busy Broadway area in downtown Nashville and offers live music every night. It sits around two blocks from the Cumberland River and the spot where Strain was last seen.

Although the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission announced on 13 March that it was investigating whether Mr Strain had been overserved at the bar, on 15 March, the bar owners revealed that the college senior had been served just one drink and two waters before being escorted out.

“No members of Riley’s party were required to stay inside the venue to close any open tabs, and no one from Luke’s 32 Bridge team prevented anyone from Riley’s party from leaving the venue with him,” the owners said in a statement.

Dead ends and questions over police response

Members of the Nashville police told reporters they still had no evidence to suggest foul play, and said they were following up on numerous “actionable leads” regarding Strain’s disappearance.

Some locals volunteering their time to assist with the case — as well as some of Strain’s friends and family - criticised the police response. While Strain’s parents defended the police response during a press conference on 19 March, they have also said it has been “frustrating” to have few answers and previously said the police were doing a “B-” job.

The Nashville police have insisted they have been following up on “actionable leads” and briefing the family with what information they can provide.

Chris Salisbury, a homeless advocate in Nashville, said he learned from several homeless individuals that a man named Ross, also homeless, had been seen wearing Strain’s shirt. The man reportedly said he found the shirt covered in vomit, wiped the vomit off, and began wearing the shirt. That report would later turn out to be incorrect, as Strain was wearing his shirt when his body was ultimately recovered.

Who was looking for Riley Strain?

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department officers and Strian’s family and friends led the search. Later, volunteers, TikTokers, and the United Cajun Navy would join the effort.

A MNPD helicopter searched the downtown area three days after Strain first disappeared.

Riley Strain, 22, was last seen on Friday 8 March 2024 in Nashville, TN (Metropolitan Nashville Police Department)

When Strain disappeared, his friends said they spent hours looking for him, while his mother and stepfather have also joined the search in recent days.

Boats searched the Cumberland River for Strain as detectives shifted their focus to reviewing security video. Strain’s phone was last tracked near Public Square Park along the Cumberland River.

“The sad part of this situation is every day we get new leads and go down different avenues,” Mr Dingman told WSMV4.

“We’re going to get there, but it also opens up more doors on what could’ve possibly happened.”

Strain’s parents have also come to Nashville to assist with search efforts.

“This is definitely the worst nightmare,” Strain’s stepfather, Chris Whiteid, told News 2. “Riley talks to us, whether it’s me or to his mom. He talks to his mom three or four times a day. For him to go this long without talking is not normal by any means.”

On 16 March, as one week had come and gone since Strain was last seen, Mr Whiteid told NBC News that he and his wife “continue to search.”

“We’re very hopeful and we’re moving forward as, you know, he’s coming home and we’re graduating in May and life goes on just as normal,” he added.

Police said on 17 March that they had recovered his bank card between Gay Street and the Cumberland River thanks to a pair of amateur sleuths who were scouring the river bank for clues and documenting their search on TikTok.

Riley Strain is found dead

After a two-week search, Strain’s body was finally located and recovered on Friday 22 March. Police said the body had been located in the Cumberland River approximately eight miles from Nashville, and bore no signs of foul play. Workers removing an object from the water stumbled onto Strain’s body and notified the police.

Nashville Police Chief John Drake held a press conference on Friday 22 March, confirming that it was Strain’s body that was recovered from the river.

An initial autopsy revealed no signs of foul play-related trauma, police told local outlet WKRN.

Mr Drake made note of a grim detail during the presser that could shed some light on why it took so long to find Strain; a body matching Strain’s height and weight would typically take approximately 14 to 20 days to surface after being submerged in a body of water. He said the police were expecting to find him sometime this week as a result.

Soon after police found Strain’s body, his family held a press conference thanking the Nashville community.

“I want to reiterate how thankful we are for everyone and how much we appreciate everyone’s support, love and prayers,” Strain’s mother, Michelle Whiteid, said.

“I just ask that you mamas out there hug your babies tight tonight, please, for me,” she continued.

Riley Strain's mother speaks out after his body is recovered

Community response

Just hours after Strain’s body was recovered, Nashville residents came together to hold a candlelight vigil for the 22-year-old.

The event was on Gay Street, the last place Strain was seen before his disappearance.

Nashville Mayor Freddie O’Connell also urged residents and visitors to be cautious and to be mindful of each other in the city in the wake of Strain’s death.

“I think this is an important reminder to everyone to also look out for one another,” Mr O’Connell said during a Friday morning meeting. “You know, I think some of this is just about how we as a city look after each other as neighbors and as people interacting in the entertainment district.”

A candlelight vigil for Riley Strain, held on the same street where footage last captured him alive (AP)

A Nashville city council member representing the city’s downtown district said he is planning to secure the area of the river where Strain is believed to have slipped into the water.

He issued a statement on Friday after news broke that Strain’s body had been found in the river.

“My heart breaks for Riley’s family and friends,” District 19 city councillor Jacob Kupin said. “Since his disappearance, I have been actively working on steps to secure the river area where he likely fell. We will continue these efforts to make sure his death was not in vain.”

What did the University of Missouri say?

The university’s president issued a statement after Strain’s body was found.

University of Missouri President Mun Y Choi informed students and faculty on Friday that Strain, who was a senior, had been found dead.

“I write to you with a heavy heart with the news that the search for MU student Riley Strain has ended tragically,” Mr Choi wrote. “After an exhaustive search by authorities and volunteers, Riley’s body was recovered today in Nashville, Tenn., where he had travelled to attend his fraternity’s spring formal event.”

“As the Mizzou community mourns Riley, we are keeping his family in our thoughts and offering support,” Mr Choi wrote.

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