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A Missouri man vanished in 2013. A YouTuber tracked him to the bottom of a pond

 Donnie Erwin's car, a 2002 Hyundai Elantra, sits on the bank of a pond from which it has been pulled on December 17.
Camden County Sherriff's Office
Donnie Erwin's car, a 2002 Hyundai Elantra, sits on the bank of a pond from which it has been pulled on December 17.

On Dec. 29, 2013, Donnie Erwin drove off from his home in Camden County, Missouri. It was the last time the 59-year-old Army veteran was seen alive. His fate became a mystery that persisted for the next decade.

Last month, almost exactly 10 years later, Erwin’s family got some answers. On Dec. 24, the Camden County Sheriff’s Office announced his car had been located at the bottom of a pond. Erwin’s remains were recovered nearby.

“It was a whirlwind of emotions,” Yvonne Erwin-Bowen, Erwin’s sister, told St. Louis on the Air. “I had accepted in my heart that I would probably never find my brother in my lifetime.”

Despite ongoing interest from police departments and an online community on Facebook, Erwin’s disappearance went unsolved for years. That changed when James Hinkle, a freelance videographer and operator of the Echo Divers YouTube channel, began searching with a drone in areas along Erwin’s last known route.

On Dec. 14, while searching with a drone, Hinkle spotted Erwin’s 2002 Hyundai Elantra underwater, at the bottom of a pond.

The search to that point had proved frustrating. Hinkle had covered several areas, including bodies of water, only to come up empty.

“I had all kinds of disappointments,” he said. “Every time I went somewhere and ran sonar, or drove around, or looked in this pond or that pond, and it wasn't Donnie, it was very disappointing.”

Over the past week, Hinkle’s discovery of Erwin’s remains has made national news on outlets including CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

“I hope this inspires other people,” Hinkle said. “If you’ve got somebody missing in your area, sometimes just going and driving around and looking, getting your boots on the ground and eyes on something — maybe you turn something up? It happens.”

To learn more about James Hinkle’s search for Donnie Erwin, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

St. Louis on the Air'' brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Danny Wicentowski