What started out as one diver collecting “river treasures” of forgotten phones and iPads has turned into a YouTube channel dedicated to finding missing people. The group, Adventures with Purpose, is a four-man team starring two Oregonians, Jared Leisek and Doug Bishop. The team travels across the U.S. diving into rivers, lakes and canals in the hopes of finding cars that were last driven by missing people. The team has uncovered human remains on multiple occasions that have been used to solve 23 cases. Bishop is the team’s lead diver. He joins us to share how they find these cars and details the work they’ve done over the past three years.

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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. One year ago, Ralph Brown, a grandfather, former educator and former mayor of Cornelius, went missing. Authorities mounted a search but he was never found. Not until last week, when divers identified Brown’s car in the Willamette River. His remains were found inside. It was just the latest cold case, one of nearly two dozen, that have been solved by a group called Adventures with Purpose. They started three years ago. They now have more than two million YouTube subscribers and some of their videos have gotten more than 10 million views. Doug Bishop is the team’s lead diver and lead investigator. He joins us to talk about their work. Doug, welcome.

Doug Bishop: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. How did Adventures with Purpose get started?

Bishop: So our founder, Jared Leisek, first started about five years ago diving for trash in our local waterways, cleaning up, and devoting his diving skills to creating a better marine environment whenever he could. And about three years ago, he ran into a vehicle underwater here in the city of Portland, and that’s where he and I came together to get that vehicle out. At the time, I was operating a towing company here in Portland. He reached out and explained some of the troubles he was having getting help to remove the vehicle, [and] if I wanted to donate our services. I did so. We teamed up to pull that vehicle out, and that one vehicle soon led to us pulling out over 30 vehicles here locally in the city of Portland.

Miller: One of the things that has been surprising about this is just how many vehicles there are in bodies of water. How do they end up there?

Bishop: Most vehicles end up underwater due to insurance fraud. Most of them are aligned with insurance fraud, and somebody just wanting to dump a vehicle and not wanting it anymore.

Miller: Insurance fraud, meaning, saying that it’s stolen and then just hiding it in the bottom of the river, correct? So, a this would be then … they figure out ways to get them in there without being inside and then they say, ‘hey, it’s stolen’.

Bishop: Yeah. And then shortly thereafter us pulling those vehicles out, we began to run into human remains inside of those vehicles. And at the time, we’re documentary filmmakers on YouTube. So our audience is watching the growth of what we’re doing [and] the impact to the local marine environment here in Oregon. And they started reaching out to us about cold cases, involving people missing and missing with vehicles.

Miller: Can you tell us about the first time that you actually found a body in the vehicle? It seems like such a different experience than a car where you’re assuming someone put it there just to steal $3,000 for an insurance company.

Bishop: It was about three years ago down at the Oak Grove boat ramp in Milwaukie. Jared and I were pulling up another vehicle, what we thought was just, another one of those stolen vehicles. And when it breached the surface, and we were re-rigging it on the boat ramp, we realized unfortunately there were human remains inside. Those remains did belong to Timothy Robinson, who had been missing for 12 years.

Miller: What’s the first thing you did when you realized that?

Bishop: So obviously there’s a lot of shock, but we understand the seriousness of it. We reach out to authorities right away, and at that point it’s a crime scene. So the integrity of everything there at the scene, it has to be dealt with pretty thoroughly.

Miller: When you started this, were you a diver, or were you primarily a tow truck driver?

Bishop: I was on the rigging side. I was a tower. I’ve been in towing ever since I was out of high school. I’ve owned and operated towing companies all across the country, and I specifically got into diving because of what Jared and I were doing [and] what it transitioned into.

Miller: What do you think about diving now? What do you like about it?

Bishop: Unfortunately, the diving that I do is just really extreme and intense, but I love it. It’s providing answers for families all across the nation. I never thought I would be in this predicament, but Jared and I both have followed where this has led us, and we’ve turned this into an amazing resource for families and law enforcement all across the country. The real secret to what we do is in sonar, and finding the vehicles here inside of the city of Portland. We were teaching ourselves how to read sonar in a way that we didn’t know. There is no school or training for sonar. So in a weird way, we’re organically experts at reading sonar now.

Miller: What kind of sonar are you using? Is it the kind that fishermen would use to figure out where to drop their line?

Bishop: Yeah, you could say that. So we’re using a down imaging, a side scan and a live scope. They are cutting edge Garmin technology, and we’re able to weirdly manipulate it to find out what’s on the bottom of waterways. Why the depth is changing and what those targets are that we’re reading.

Miller: And what looks like the shape of a sedan or an SUV or whatever.

Bishop: Absolutely.

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Miller: At this point, how do you pick which cases to pursue? Because you and your team are going all over the country.

Bishop: So we have about two million subscribers on YouTube, with another 1.4 million on Facebook. We don’t have access to databases. We’re not a government agency. So we really rely on our community. It’s the community that puts us in the position to do what we do, through donations and watching, sharing and subscribing. And they also reach out to us about cases. And we field that information, we vet it and then we apply it to our list of cases that we plan out. So if you’re missing with a vehicle, that’s pretty much the criteria that we fit in order to look into it. If we deem that the circumstances are viable, that them and the vehicle that’s missing could definitely be underwater, we’re going to take that case on.

Miller: In other words, it has to be a missing person, a vehicle, and there has to be proximity to water or reason to believe that somebody ended up in the water?

Bishop: Typically, when a long period of time is going by, we’re specializing in cold cases. These are cases that law enforcement and other agencies have deemed pretty much unworkable, all the leads and and clues are dead ends, so that they have to justify the use of resources so they can no longer work on them. If you’re missing, and missing with a vehicle, we then come in. We’ll meet with family and friends and law enforcement and go over the case. And then that’s how we choose where we need to search as far as waterways. We try to usually go off of a cell phone ping, which is what we used in Ralph Brown. Where we located his vehicle, was less than a quarter mile from his last cell phone ping. So that was huge, us concentrating there at Rogers Landing. And then the other clues like that that we use to determine which waterways we search.

Miller: In that most recent case, I’ve read that you actually did search there a number of times and it was the fourth time where you found his car just just last week. What made you go back the second and the third and the fourth time?

Bishop: Weirdly, I just would say it’s the instincts that we’ve developed in working all of these cases. We just couldn’t let that cell phone ping go. We just knew we had to really focus on Roger’s Landing and that’s something that we’ve never done before. So it’s 100% instinct. We could not leave alone that area, and the amount of debris that’s in the Willamette River there in the Rogers Landing area is what concealed the vehicle for so long on our previous searches. There’s a lot of timber down there.

Miller: And so a working theory is that perhaps a log was carried away in the current at some point between the last time you’ve searched and now, and now you can actually get a clearer picture?

Bishop: Absolutely.

Miller: How often have authorities, the people who taxpayers are paying to do what you and your team are now doing, how often have they already searched in the bodies of water where you have eventually found cars?

Bishop: Almost 99% of the cases that we have solved are in areas that multiple different agencies have searched.

Miller: Basically, all the time?

Bishop: Yes. And that’s not a knock on any form of government or local agency. It’s the magic in what we do is really in sonar. And there’s no accredited program anywhere in the world that teaches sonar to government agencies and local law enforcement, whereas we’re using sonar almost every day. The river patrol, or the other different volunteer departments that are out here using it, maybe use it once a month and not on a scale that we are. Most of their usage is on preserving life, rescue, not necessarily what’s been under the water for a very long time, if that makes sense.

Miller: I’m curious about the relationships you develop with grieving families, with families who for a year or for two decades have been left wondering where their loved ones are, and if they’ll ever find them. And then you come along: what are those conversations like, and what kinds of relationships do you develop?

Bishop: We developed amazing relationships. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a missing persons subject, which is not really talked about. What families go through when they’re missing someone is really tragic. Unfortunately, law enforcement can only do so much at first, and we have 800,000 people roughly that go missing every year in America. About 60% of those show back up, so for law enforcement to really take someone being missing serious – and a lot of time goes by, weeks, sometimes months – and the relationships that we form with these families, they all mimic the same ring, which is, ‘nobody’s ever done anything for me’. And so when we come in, we’re providing them a new sense of hope, because of the success we’re having. They’re very hopeful we’re going to help them, and we’re going to find their loved ones. And even when we don’t, even when we work with families and we’re not successful in finding their loved ones, they still tell us the same thing. They’re so grateful for us, and that we’ve done more for them in a few days than anybody’s done for them in x amount of years. So it’s a very powerful relationship that we form, and we take it very seriously, because we understand what we’re doing. And thankfully for us, because of the community that puts us in the position to do what we do, we don’t ever charge families or law enforcement one dime because of the donations and the support that we get allows that to happen.

Miller: So you’re able to, at this point, make a living from … you get ads from YouTube and then donations from viewers?

Bishop: Yeah. Through donations from the public and our supporters, we also get monetization from the social media platforms that we use to showcase our searches, and the investigations that we do. We don’t fake anything. We don’t enhance anything. And when Jared and I come into town and work with the family, it’s boots on the ground and we’re really trying to do something that no one else has been able to do, and we take it very seriously.

Miller: How do you think about – and I take what you just said seriously, that you take this seriously – but also the model you’ve set up. It relies on people to watch and to care about what you’re doing in various ways, whether it’s because there’s some ad revenue, or donations and a community that you’re also relying on for tips. So I imagine on some level you have to think about the watchability, the excitement, the entertainment value of the videos you’re putting out, in addition to the seriousness of the situations that you’re involved in. I’m curious how you think about those together.

Bishop: As weirdly as it is to say, it’s really natural for us. Where we’re very good at being relatable for families. We’re very communicative when we’re working with law enforcement and families. When we’re working with them, they understand what it is that we do and how we do it, and the same thing with law enforcement. So we’re just two regular guys with a couple of cameras, and we’re trying to use our common sense investigative skills, our sonar skills and our diving skills to make all those come together, and provide families and law enforcement with answers.

Miller: In some of the videos that I’ve watched, the conversations, or maybe a better word negotiations, that you have with law enforcement after you’ve found a car that has a body in it, and at that point it’s potentially a crime scene and so you contact authorities, Sheriff’s department or whoever: those conversations, they can actually seem more difficult and more challenging than the search itself. What are those conversations sometimes like?

Bishop: Those are very serious conversations, when we’ve made a discovery and we’re bringing in law enforcement. Nine times out of ten, they know who we are, and that helps. Because when you’re producing the results we have – and we are among the most experienced in the world at pulling vehicles from underwater – those resources are vital, and not a lot of agencies have that kind of resource at their hands. So we’re putting together . . . and how our investigation unfolded as well as a recovery plan to get the vehicle out, and the proper handling of the evidence underwater and so forth.

Miller:  But what I’ve seen a couple of times is what seems like defensiveness on the part of law enforcement. I get the sense that they fear that you’ve shown them up.

Bishop: Yeah. In the beginning we have had that where ‘who are you guys?’, and I get it, who were in the beginning. But recently we have not experienced that at all. That’s some very old stuff there as far as law enforcement having those kinds of attitudes. Now it’s, I guess as they say, the proof is in the pudding. You guys are producing results, and we want to use you as a resource. And now they’re contacting us about cases, and speaking at law enforcement assemblies across the nation in regards to our sonar tactics and the techniques that we use in investigating.

Miller: Where are you going next?

Bishop: So we have a case here in Oregon. Young man went missing in 2013. Brandon Purdue, down near Medford. Him and his vehicle have been missing. He disappeared as a senior in high school, but we have some information and we’re working with the local authorities down there to have that worked out so that we can all collaborate and work together and that will be here within the next couple of weeks.

Miller: Doug Bishop, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Bishop: Yeah, thank you.

Miller: Doug Bishop is lead investigator and lead diver for Adventures with Purpose.

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