Body of West Salem teen found in Willamette River

Police found the body of a missing 16-year-old West Salem High School student in a Willamette River waterway Saturday, the Salem Police Department announced Tuesday afternoon.

Zackary Christopher Brenneman has been the subject of a search since disappearing from a football game at the school on Friday, Sept. 16.

Around 1 p.m. Saturday, Salem police detectives and Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to a report of a deceased person in the Willamette River across from Keizer Rapids Park. The person matched Brenneman’s description, Salem police wrote in the statement.

The Oregon State Medical Examiner determined Brenneman’s cause of death was drowning.

Detectives found no evidence of a crime or foul play.

“Although Salem police detectives are waiting for the results of other medical reports for official confirmation of identify, they are confident the person found is Zackary,” according to the statement.

Family members reported Brenneman missing just after 11 p.m. on Friday. Family member Bryan Brenneman posted a family statement on Facebook Tuesday afternoon.

“From the moment we were aware of Zack’s disappearance, we were shown tremendous love and support. We are deeply saddened to update, that Zack passed away on September 16th. We are heartbroken and request privacy as we grieve,” the statement read.

The statement went on to explain how Zack was diagnosed with a disorder which is described as creating compulsive violent thoughts. “As a family, we spent 6 weeks getting Zack the care he deserved, and our family bonds flourished,” the statement read. “While we can only speculate, as to where Zack was mentally on Friday, the 16th, a note on his phone eluded to the fact that his mental health struggles remained.”

In the days following their disappearance, some who knew the teen referred to Brenneman as Serena on social media and said the teen used she and her pronouns.

“We are aware of, and had open discussions regarding Zack’s gender identity,” the family statement said. “This was an ongoing process, that Zack continued to question with us and himself. If Zack had asked you personally to use different pronouns, or names, please continue to do so.”

Brenneman’s school community also shared condolences and sadness at the loss.

At the district’s school board meeting Tuesday night, student advisor Isaac McDonald spoke about the news.

“Today the Titan family has a heavy heart and we are grieving. The crisis team has been at West Salem today and the students in our halls are somber. There are students who were very close to Zackary, and for their closest friends this is extremely hard,” he said. “We knew Zackary as a courageous student who was not afraid to be their authentic self. They will be missed.”

Carlos Ruiz, principal of West Salem High School, sent out a notice to families on Tuesday, stating that the district’s crisis support team sent extra counselors to the school Tuesday to support staff and students processing the loss of their peer.

“We know that grief isn’t a linear process, and we may all need some extra help today and, in the days to come,” Ruiz stated. “Zackary was a great kid and they and I had great conversations since my time as principal at West. I loved their courage to be authentic. Zackary touched lives here and we know our students will be sad.”

During the meeting, McDonald urged students who were struggling to seek out the crisis support team and turn to other mental health resources as needed, including the suicide hotline, which can be found listed on the back of their student ID cards.

“We offer our condolences to the Brenneman Family during this extremely difficult time. At present, the family is requesting privacy,” Salem police wrote in the statement Tuesday.

If you are experiencing a crisis, help is available. You can call the Northwest Human Services Hotline at 503.581.5535 or 1.800.560.5535. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 988. Oregon teens can contact Lines for Life’s YouthLine daily from 4-10 p.m. to chat confidentially with a trained teen by texting 839863, calling 877-968-8491 or chatting online.

Salem Reporter is interested in reporting further on this story. People who would like to share more about how they knew Brenneman can contact reporters Ardeshir Tabrizian at [email protected] or 503-929-3053 and Jordyn Brown at [email protected]

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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.

Jordyn Brown is an Oregon journalist who formerly worked for the Eugene Register-Guard.