Group pulls three cars from Willamette River while investigating Salem cold case

Doug Bishop, lead diver and lead investigator for Adventures with Purpose, talks with founder Jared Leisek after they pulled three cars out of the Willamette River on July 10. (Courtesy/Doug Bishop)

For Doug Bishop, pulling three stolen cars out of the Willamette River was nothing out of the ordinary.

Bishop is the lead diver and lead investigator for Adventures with Purpose, an Oregon-based group that uses sonar equipment to solve cold cases all over the country. 

After their supporters in Salem asked them to take on a nearly 50-year-old cold case, they sought to find the missing person. Bishop and their crew on July 10 parked their boat at Wallace Marine Park and scanned the river north for cars until they reached Keizer Rapids Park.

They found no body, but what they did find was a first for the group. The license plates on the three cars —  a GMC Denali, Jeep Cherokee and Volkswagen Jetta — indicated they’d been underwater together for no more than two years.

“None of them were old. That was unusual,” Bishop said.

Typically if the crew finds multiple cars, they stretch throughout a long period of time. “But to find three cars in the same spot of one isolated boat ramp that were just within a few years of each other, that’s pretty rare,” he said.

Bishop said he suspects the Keizer location was a dumping ground for one thief.

“Can I tell you that 100%? No,” he said. “But from what I have done around the country and the things that I’ve uncovered, I would say it’s the same person that put those cars there.”

Adventures with Purpose has traveled to 48 states, solving 23 cold cases in the past two years.

That’s done on a shoestring budget, he said, relying only on donations through their website and monetization of social media platforms.

Bishop said license plates and expiration stickers were his biggest indicators of how long the cars had been underwater in Keizer. In other instances, the rubber on tires, deterioration of metals and bacteria buildup can also provide clues.

The crew came to Salem in search of Brian Joseph Page, who disappeared with his 1962 Volkswagen Beetle after he was last seen at a party on State Street in 1975.

When they found the cars, Bishop reached out to a Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputy he’d seen at the boat ramp. The deputy used his radio to call Keizer police.

“Keizer showed up right away, and they came out in force. Most officers know who we are because they watch our show, and they take things pretty serious when we come in,” Bishop said. “I have the ability to call in resources so that it doesn’t cost municipalities a dime to pull these cars out.”

Portland-based Northwestern Towing brought down a million-dollar rotator and three flatbeds to stack up the cars.

Doug Bishop and Jared Leisek of Adventures with purpose went diving at the Willamette River July 10 in search of a dead body. Instead, they found three cars underwater near Keizer Rapids Park. (Courtesy/Doug Bishop)

Bishop said a video is still to be posted about the Keizer discovery, and they typically take around 60 days to put together.

Most of the cars they’ve found underwater have been stolen through insurance fraud.

Lt. Dustin Newman of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said he was unsure if the three cars were stolen, and it would be difficult to develop a suspect without DNA or other evidence due to them being submerged.

He said people who put cars underwater often do so after taking what is valuable off it. 

“I think what these folks do is a good thing,” Newman said of Adventures with Purpose. “They remove hazards from the water that may remain for years. Just for starters it takes specific equipment and can be hazardous and extremely expensive.”

Bishop said sonar technology is still relatively new and has no standardized national school that teaches it. 

“So we’re operating in a gray area that is new,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the sonar equipment that’s used by law enforcement is being used inaccurately, or it doesn’t exist because of lack of resources or lack of availability.”

Bishop and the group’s founder, Jared Leisek, are self-taught in reading sonar.

Leisek, who is based in Bend and semi-retired from real estate and website development, started diving with the intent of cleaning up Oregon waterways in 2018.

He started to run into cars underwater in Portland and wanted to remove them. That’s when Leisek got ahold of Bishop, who ran a Portland towing company at the time, and asked if he could pull the cars out. 

In summer 2019, the pair pulled at least 25 cars out from underwater throughout Oregon.

“It’s great to get these cars out of the waterway, they’re toxic. The glues and the material that’s in it should not be in our waters,” he said. “In doing this, we’re not realizing that by using the sonar to find these cars, we’re teaching ourselves something that can’t be taught.”

Leisek’s YouTube channel started to explode as they began pulling out cars, gaining tens of thousands of subscribers.  

Around 20 cars in, they ran into the first body in a car. 

The discovery brought their count to around 100,000 subscribers, who started reaching out to tell them they might be onto something. Their channel now sees roughly 20 million views per month.

The crew — which also includes two videographers in the field and an editor — now focuses on cold cases. Bishop said the group has solved 80% of the cold cases it’s investigated.

They offer training in sonar to other YouTubers as well as law enforcement, having recently flown to Little Rock to train members of the Arkansas State Police on an invite from the state’s attorney general.

They don’t charge law enforcement for families for the work they do, which often starts with viewers or detectives reaching out about a case.

“Helping families is extremely powerful. When you miss somebody, when somebody goes missing that you love and is never found, that’s a nightmare,” Bishop said. “For us to be able to get so many families and communities answers, that’s why we do it.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.