When Carey Mae Parker didn’t show up for her son’s sixth-birthday party in Hunt County, Texas, in 1991, her family was puzzled but not entirely surprised. Parker was young and had a turbulent life, and they assumed she’d appear eventually. But she never did. Parker’s daughter, Brandy Hathcock, was five at the time. She and her two siblings had spent time in foster care; later, they moved in with their grandfather. The household was chaotic, fractured by abuse. “I hadn’t heard the term ‘intergenerational trauma’ until pretty recently, but as soon as I heard it I knew, O.K., that’s exactly what I’ve experienced,” Brandy told me.
Brandy was initially led to believe that her mother had abandoned the family, but as she got older she began to reconsider. Maybe Parker hadn’t left her children; maybe something had happened to her. Her relatives shared their own ideas: cinematic theories involving drug deals gone wrong, Mexican cartels, crooked cops, and a vast, countywide conspiracy. The uncertainty was “like living with a ghost,” Brandy said. “I wanted to give up hope, because that kind of hope is so heavy. I didn’t want to carry it anymore, but I couldn’t put it down.” When Brandy was in her early twenties, she and her aunt, Patricia Gager, tried to fill in the gaps left by local law enforcement, which they said had done little to find Parker. (Gager had informed police in a neighboring county of Parker’s disappearance in 1991, but Hunt County had no record of it until 2010, when Brandy filed a missing person’s report. The local sheriff’s office then began investigating the case.)
A few years ago, George Hale, a public-radio reporter from Dallas, produced a podcast on Parker’s disappearance. The program zeroed in on her ex-boyfriend, who, according to local gossip, had dug a large hole on the grounds of his family’s septic business around the time she vanished. But the show ended with no conclusive answers. “I really thought I would go to my grave not knowing what had happened to her,” Brandy said.
Then, in December, 2020, Brandy’s husband showed her a video he’d seen on YouTube. It was made by a group called Adventures with Purpose, volunteer salvage divers who investigated cold cases by searching for cars in lakes and rivers, and shared their exploits with millions of YouTube followers. Brandy spent the evening binge-watching their videos, including one about Nicholas Allen, a North Carolina teen-ager who had disappeared a few months earlier, and whose submerged vehicle and body had been recovered by A.W.P. divers. The video showed Allen’s mother, Judy Riley, standing on the shore of a muddy river, sobbing. “I’ve known he was here. I’ve known and I’ve begged and I’ve asked, and today you guys got me my answers,” she said in the video. This was the third case that A.W.P. had helped solve since the group was founded, two years earlier, by Jared Leisek, an Oregon entrepreneur. Brandy had often wondered whether the reason that her mother and her car had never turned up was that they were under water. That evening, she sent A.W.P. a Facebook message: “I’m hoping to find out how you determine which missing persons cases you work? My mother and her car have been missing without a trace since 1991.”
Two months later, a handful of men from A.W.P. showed up in Hunt County. Leisek, a restless man in his mid-forties, stepped into a small inflatable boat and cruised alongside the causeway that spans Lake Tawakoni, which was on the route to Parker’s father’s home. He scanned the lakebed with sonar for hours with another diver, Sam Ginn. Eventually, they spotted an upside-down car. Ginn squeezed into a drysuit and ducked under the surface. When he popped up, he seemed frustrated. “I can’t see nothing,” he said. “I’m ridiculously cold.” But he’d managed to pry off a piece of the car’s body. It was pale blue, the color of the Buick that Parker had been driving when she disappeared. Then Leisek went into the water, returning with a bumper. When Gager saw it, she began to weep. Leisek also retrieved a section of a door panel. It had a Smurf decal stuck on it; as a child, Brandy’s brother, Brian, loved the Smurfs. In the resulting video, Ginn tells him, “This is more than likely put there by you when you were a kid.” Parker’s family stood at the water’s edge, accommodating their new reality. It seemed that Parker hadn’t run off or been murdered, but that she had got into an accident and her car had sunk in the lake, trapping her.
Leisek kept diving, attaching chains to the vehicle. It was dark by the time a tow truck hauled part of the dripping car onto shore. It was Parker’s Buick, but her remains weren’t inside. Leisek, his hair still damp, shook his head, visibly disappointed. “Unfortunately, today,” he told the camera, “we have the answers as to where Carey is at—we just don’t yet have Carey home.” In the video, which now has more than three million views, he adds, “Thank you for being with us, and, if you’ve not done so, please do subscribe.”
The Internet has added a new dimension to the persistent fascination with crime stories: it has made the genre participatory. Tricia Griffith, the owner of Websleuths, a true-crime discussion forum founded in 1999, encountered the online sleuthing community in the late nineteen-nineties, when she was “incredibly bored” following the birth of her son. The JonBenét Ramsey case was all over the news. “I read something in the paper about a six-year-old beauty queen found dead in her basement, and I thought, Well, that’s a misprint. There’s no such thing as a six-year-old beauty queen. So I got on the Internet to check it out. And then I was hooked,” Griffith said. On Web forums and discussion boards, strangers pooled their expertise to analyze Ramsey’s death in far greater depth than the nightly news had. The participants might include a nurse who could offer opinions about Ramsey’s injuries, someone who purported to have insider information about her family, and a paralegal who knew how to parse court filings.
These days, the patchwork group of Facebook detectives, crime commentators, self-trained DNA analysts, and curious onlookers has come to be known as the true-crime community. It has helped solve cases and brought attention to wrongful convictions. (After a formerly homeless man who won the lottery was murdered, posters on Websleuths helped find his killer.) But it has also been an engine of misinformation, vitriol, and harassment. (Redditors identified a missing student as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, and his family was hounded relentlessly; it turned out that he had died by suicide.)
When Griffith purchased Websleuths, in 2004, it was “a snakepit,” she said. Forum members, angry when others didn’t agree with their pet theories, often turned their detective skills on one another: “People would be, like, ‘I know where you live,’ ‘Screw you, I know where you live.’ ” Griffith instituted content policies—no name-calling; no unfounded rumors—and the tenor of discussions improved. But, elsewhere on the Internet, the moderation was often less strict. Griffith was particularly concerned by what she saw on YouTube, where users could build a brand by discussing dramatic subjects with variable adherence to the truth. When the Covid lockdowns left people stuck at home, hungry for drama, the true-crime community grew in size and intensity. “There were always rumors and crazy stuff going around. But nothing like today,” Griffith told me. “People are just accusing people of murder in these videos, and it spreads like wildfire. Because you can make money. It’s maddening.”
When Jared Leisek founded Adventures with Purpose, in 2018, he didn’t intend to solve cold cases. At the time, Leisek was a Web marketer with two bankruptcies on his record, looking for his next opportunity. For fun, he pursued high-adrenaline hobbies like powered paragliding; for edification, he enjoyed self-help-inflected business books and seminars (“Rich Dad Poor Dad”; anything by Tony Robbins). His first experience of the viral potential of crime stories came when he was hired to help produce videos for a YouTuber known as Patty Mayo, who played a bounty hunter capturing fugitives in a staged, partially scripted series. Mayo’s videos, which are designed to look like reality TV, have been viewed more than a billion times.
Leisek came up with the phrase “Adventures with Purpose” by using a business-name generator. He thought the name sounded catchy, like something people would want to be a part of. But he wasn’t sure what the adventures, or the purpose, would be. Leisek first attempted to build his YouTube channel around powered paragliding, but it was difficult to capture good sound while the glider’s motor was running. Then he came across a channel devoted to underwater treasure hunting. Since he was already scuba-certified, he decided to give it a go. He assumed that the videos were staged and planned to do the same. “I went to a yard sale, got a bunch of antiques, and I’m getting ready to put them in the water,” he told me. “But, before I do, let me just get in and do a river float and see what I can find. And it was just, like, there’s all my content right there.”
Leisek enlisted his wife and one of his daughters to film him as he submerged himself in the lakes and rivers of central Oregon and came up with phones, watches, and sunglasses. Although he did his best to make these activities sound like exciting escapades—“Found 2 iPhones and a BABY OCTOPUS while Diving for Lost Valuables!”—his views lagged behind other diving channels. “I’m doing the exact same things they are, with better filming, in my opinion,” he said. “But I’m not gaining the traction. They’ll put up a video and get a million views for it, and I’m getting, like, three thousand.”
Then, in 2019, he found two stolen guns in a lake. “The YouTubers really liked that part of it, seeing the possibility of crime evidence thrown into rivers and lakes,” one of Leisek’s former diving partners told me. The resulting video became the first by A.W.P. to get more than a million views. In another popular video, from later that year, Leisek used inflatable bags to lift a sunken vehicle from the bottom of the Willamette River and float it down to a boat ramp, where a tow truck pulled it out of the water. It was a bold stunt, and one that appealed to YouTube viewers who appreciated old cars and D.I.Y. logistics. (At the time, Leisek told me, only about nine per cent of his channel’s viewers were women.) Leisek began working regularly with a group of men, including Ginn, a rescue-boat captain in Seattle, and Doug Bishop, a tow-truck driver in Portland. They helped him locate cars under water, pull them onshore, and power-wash them to remove the river gunk.
That fall, Leisek spoke with the family of Nathaniel Ashby, a young man who had disappeared a few months earlier. Ashby’s phone had last pinged near a boat ramp leading into the Missouri River. Law enforcement had found multiple vehicles in that part of the river, but decided that conditions were too dangerous to remove them. Leisek offered to do the recovery free of charge.
Just after Christmas, Leisek and Ginn drove from Oregon to Missouri, where they helped recover the car from a depth of twenty-five feet; Ashby’s body was in the front seat. The resulting video, “Solved Missing Persons Case . . . Bringing Closure for Nathan’s Family,” was viewed more than ten million times. Leisek had assumed that the Ashby situation was a one-off, but the A.W.P. in-box was quickly flooded with messages from people asking for help locating family members. Adventures with Purpose soon had a new and more compelling purpose: finding missing people—or, as Leisek liked to call them, “missing loved ones”—under water. Instead of #scubadiving and #rivertreasure, A.W.P. posts were now labelled with tags like #coldcase and #truecrime. Leisek bought an R.V., recruited videographers and backup divers, and began setting out on monthlong road trips, stopping wherever there was a promising case. While some small-town law-enforcement agencies were eager to coöperate with A.W.P., which often had more resources than they did, others were more territorial. “I’m coming in as a civilian to do your job—you can imagine how much that pisses off some local agencies,” he said.
The backstories of the people A.W.P. searched for—“missing grandma,” “missing veteran,” “missing bridesmaid”—were told only in broad strokes. The videos instead lingered on the suspenseful logistics of a recovery: currents push the boat sideways, something mysterious pops up on the sonar screen, a grappling hook snags on a log. During the inevitable emotional crescendo, a car is pulled from the water, signifying “closure for the family,” as Leisek often said. The videos tapped into a rising YouTube trend, the monetization of good deeds. (MrBeast, who has the most subscribers of any individual YouTuber, is known for his performative charity videos: “I Adopted EVERY Dog In A Dog Shelter”; “I Gave $20,000 To Random Homeless People.”)
Although most of the people A.W.P. found seem to have died either by accident or by suicide, the group’s other search videos sometimes hinted at more salacious possibilities, referencing murder weapons, a Mafia hit, and a jail-house confession. “Missing Preacher Murdered?” one video thumbnail asked. Another read, simply, “Killed?” “I hate the true-crime community,” Leisek told me. But he knew that intimations of crime brought views. “Everything is very strategic, from the S.E.O. side of it to the production side of it,” he said. “It’s a business.”
There were occasional missteps. The first time Leisek live-streamed a car retrieval, viewers watched, horrified, as the camera captured a man’s decaying body in the front seat. Leisek could be stiff when interacting with bereaved families, seeming more at home with equipment than with people. But good days felt like an episode of “Scooby-Doo.” “We start every day with a new mystery,” Leisek said. “Who are we looking for? What were they driving? Where were they last seen? Can we solve this mystery by the end of the day? I like using my mind every day. I don’t want to use the word ‘exciting.’ Somebody’s lost a loved one. But it keeps it, you know, not boring.” Over hundreds of videos, the A.W.P. crew developed into characters: Leisek, the dogged, exacting leader; Bishop, the tow-truck driver, with his ZZ Top beard; Ginn, graying and kind-eyed, sometimes accompanied by his teen-age son.
A.W.P.’s annual budget swelled to more than a million dollars, much of it supplied by merchandise sales (“Search Team” beanies; “What’s Your Purpose” T-shirts), membership fees (between five and a hundred dollars a month for early access to videos and custom emojis), revenue from YouTube advertisements, and contributions from viewers. Fans sent gift cards for Cracker Barrel, knowing that it was where the guys liked to eat breakfast before a big dive. Leisek reminded viewers, most of whom were now women, that they were part of a movement—their views and their contributions were helping to solve cold cases. During a live stream, he read a fan letter from a woman in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: “I’m married, two cats, full-time job. I don’t typically watch YouTube, my husband does, and one day his rabbit trail of videos played one of your videos, and I happened to be watching, since then I’ve been hooked. . . . When you have asked the question, ‘What’s your purpose?’ in your videos, I sometimes feel like I don’t have much purpose. I have a lot of health struggles, and it’s challenging enough for me to work full-time. I come home from work and rest a lot. . . . I just wanted you to know that you have made an impact on me, and that I want to be a more caring individual because of your videos.”
For most of his life, Leisek had chafed at hierarchies and rules. “I don’t deal well with having stupid people be in charge,” he told me. Now he’d stumbled into a niche where his preference for working outside official channels seemed to be an advantage. On one search, when A.W.P. recovered a body that several other dive teams had failed to retrieve, the local sheriff appeared impressed. “The thing about me is I don’t have all the red tape,” Leisek told him. As civilians, the A.W.P. crew didn’t have to get clearance from higher-ups, or complete a stack of paperwork, or follow standard procedures when they conducted a search.
Other divers sometimes criticized A.W.P. for being inexperienced and prone to risk-taking. As the host of a popular diving podcast reviewed a video of Leisek training Bishop, he cautioned listeners, “If you think that it wasn’t a big deal for them, so you can now do this, and you can dive deeper, and you can introduce new gear . . . without the proper training, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” He added, “It’s extremely dangerous, and I don’t advocate any of this.”
“I come from the world of practice makes perfect,” Leisek told me. “People will say, ‘You’re not certified as a rescue diver, you’re not certified to go below sixty feet.’ I tell them to go pound sand.”
A.W.P. eventually had eighteen employees. By then, the group owned two R.V.s, one parked on each coast, which towed trailers wrapped in custom A.W.P. skins and filled with two hundred and twenty thousand dollars’ worth of diving gear, some of it donated by sponsors. Professional videographers filmed the searches using gimbals, GoPros, and drones.
On long drives, Leisek would sometimes talk about his rough childhood: how he’d temporarily dropped out of high school to work at the same mill as his father; how he’d briefly been homeless and eaten out of dumpsters; how he’d gone years without speaking to his parents. But, as he told it, the story arc always bent upward, toward triumph. He was still married to his high-school sweetheart; he’d repaired his relationship with his parents; and his work with A.W.P. was bringing him both money and attention. “Now I’m in Rolling Stone, I’m on ‘Dr. Phil,’ I’m a hero to the world,” he told me. Leisek liked to dispense business and relationship advice to his team. “He was always talking about mentorship,” a former employee said. “When people quit, he’d be, like, ‘O.K., but just know, this means you’re not going to receive any more of my mentorship.’ ” Travelling with the group meant adapting to Leisek’s relentless pace and his “no nonsense, no patience” approach, as the employee put it: working on a case during the day, leaving as soon as the vehicle was pulled from the water, and then driving all night to the next site. During a six-week road trip, they might conduct thirty different searches. The rush was either to locate more “loved ones” or to capture more views; the two missions were intertwined.
After A.W.P. located Carey Mae Parker’s car, a dive team from the Texas Department of Public Safety came to look for her body. Compared with A.W.P., the state team’s search seemed perfunctory. “We had to watch from a very far distance, and there was no engagement whatsoever,” Brandy said. “We couldn’t ask anybody questions.” The state team left after a few hours, without having found Parker. (The Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment, but the Hunt County Sheriff’s Office said the team had followed standard procedure.) Leisek, incensed, returned to Lake Tawakoni, along with Bishop and a handful of others.
On a bright, windy morning, Leisek and Bishop stretched lines across a section of the lake marked with buoys, so that they could search in a grid pattern. Within two days, they found a jawbone, a femur, a sacrum, and fragments of spine. Right before Leisek left, as he hugged Brandy, he dropped something into her hand: the necklace her mother had been wearing on the day she died. “I know he probably broke some rules there,” Brandy said. “All the evidence was supposed to go to the crime lab. But it was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.”
Brandy understood the bargain she was entering into by reaching out to A.W.P. “At this point, millions of people have seen me cry, and that makes me extremely uncomfortable,” she said. “But, at the same time, that’s what gets people invested.”
Last February, A.W.P. was working on a case in Florida when Leisek left abruptly, without explanation. A couple of months later, he filmed himself sitting in a dim living room. “My heart is just, like, pounding out of my chest right now,” he said. “I’m not here to give you a polished video today, you know. I’m simply here to talk about me, my vulnerabilities.” In the next hour, Leisek discussed his depression, got choked up, reminisced about past cases, and gave away merchandise. It was unclear what had triggered the video. His viewers were unsettled, but their concerns were overshadowed a few months later, when A.W.P.’s in-box was inundated with messages about a case that was unfolding in Truckee, California. Just before midnight on August 5th, a sixteen-year-old named Kiely Rodni had texted her mother to say that she would soon be heading home from a graduation party at a campground near Prosser Reservoir. Her cell phone pinged near the reservoir at about 12:30 A.M., then went dark. She hadn’t been heard from since.
Rodni was young, white, and pretty, and her absence led to fervid speculation online. Her friends—and particularly her ex-boyfriend—were pegged as suspects, with teen-age partying and romantic drama magnified into motives for murder. “There’s something really stinking rotten horrible going on with this Kiely Rodni case. There is a coverup, and I believe it’s among the friends,” a TikToker said, citing “body language” as evidence. “Why does your face look like that when talking about your friend you are ‘so close’ with?” another asked. According to one unfounded rumor, Rodni had been killed as part of a teen-age fight club; another held that she’d been sold to a sex-trafficking ring.
Previously, A.W.P. had focussed on cold cases. Becoming involved in a high-profile, active investigation was an opportunity to expand its reach. Law enforcement had already searched Prosser Reservoir, but that didn’t dissuade Leisek. “If she’s under water, in my opinion they just don’t have the skills,” he said.
A team, led by Doug Bishop, set out for California. On their way to Truckee, a fan flagged them down in a Best Buy parking lot and told them that he might have a lead in the case. He worked for a roadside-assistance company, he said, and he had recently been dispatched to the Truckee area to help a young couple whose car wouldn’t start. The interaction had left him uneasy. The woman had seemed distressed, and he’d wondered if she’d had a rough day, or was very hungover. As soon as he took the car out of neutral and put it in park, it started just fine. After he left, he called his girlfriend and told her how strange the encounter had been. It was only later, after seeing Rodni’s picture on a flyer, that he wondered whether he’d actually met her around the time she went missing.
The A.W.P. team pulled into Truckee two weeks after Rodni disappeared. Her impish grin smiled out from thousands of flyers posted on stop signs, store windows, and bulletin boards. The crew started the search at a lake, then went to a reservoir near where the roadside-assistance driver claimed he’d encountered the mysterious couple. Finding nothing, they turned their attention to Prosser Reservoir. As a cameraman filmed Bishop, he cruised the reservoir in an inflatable boat and read aloud a message from an unnamed local source who hinted that Rodni’s disappearance might have a “more sinister” explanation: “Something bad happened and all the kids’ parents told them not to get involved.”
“I feel the same way!” Bishop said to the camera.
Fifty-five feet from shore, in another boat, Nick Rinn peered at a rectangular shape on the sonar screen. It looked like a boat, or possibly a car. “Hey, Doug,” Rinn’s cameraman radioed Bishop. “We may have something. It’s hard to tell.”
That day, Rodni’s father and grandfather were at Prosser Reservoir with Steve Fischer, a private investigator. They had heard rumors of A.W.P.’s arrival, but no one in the group had spoken to anyone in the family. As they stood on a hill overlooking the water, Fischer’s colleague called to tell them that A.W.P. had just announced on Facebook that it had found Rodni’s Honda CR-V in the reservoir, with her body inside.
As the news spread through Truckee, there was criticism that the group had rushed to post on Facebook before officials confirmed the identity of the remains. Rodni’s mother heard about what had happened from a server at the restaurant where she was having lunch. She told her father, David Robertson, that she felt the group had made a spectacle of her daughter’s death. (A.W.P. claims that it contacted a distant relative who lived in another state before making the Facebook post. “We can’t keep every family member in the loop,” Leisek told me.) Rodni’s ex-boyfriend accused the group of “clout chasing.” But most people greeted the team members as heroes, lavishing them with hospitality. “We couldn’t pay for a meal,” one of them told me. Law-enforcement agencies had devoted nearly twenty thousand hours to the search for Rodni, and A.W.P. said that it had found her within an hour of putting a boat into Prosser Reservoir.
Leisek liked to say that A.W.P.’s job was to locate people under water, not to determine how or why they’d ended up there. But in interviews Bishop and Leisek insisted that Rodni’s death was suspect. “It doesn’t add up,” Bishop told Fox News Digital. “It reeks of foul play.”
The team retreated to a cabin on Lake Tahoe, where the editors rushed to put together a video. Former A.W.P. team members told me that they fought with Leisek and Bishop over the content. (Leisek characterizes it as an open discussion.) “It would’ve been better to just be, like, ‘Here’s the facts. We found the missing girl,’ ” one of them said. Instead, the video, which was titled “How We FOUND Kiely Rodni: MURDER or ACCIDENT?,” seemed designed to stoke speculation. In it, Rinn discovers Rodni’s body in the car’s rear cargo compartment, which he calls “suspicious.” The video also included a lengthy interview with the roadside-assistance driver about his interaction with the bizarre couple. Some viewers seized on his description of the young man accompanying the distressed woman: thin, with brown hair poking out from under a black Giants cap. The description resembled Rodni’s ex-boyfriend. “I was, like, dang, man, this is going to throw those true crimers into a whole nother frenzy,” the former team member said of the video. In an interview with a group of true-crime YouTubers the following week, Leisek was coy, suggesting that more information might be released later. “There’s an entire other theory that—it would blow your mind if I even told you,” he said, then added that the man the roadside-assistance driver had seen was “a positive match.” The YouTubers received the news as a bombshell. “Oh, wow,” one said. “Oh, my God,” said another.
Leisek’s intimations circulated in the true-crime community, where there is a tendency to assume that the official story of a tragic death obscures a more horrific reality. Engagement-driven platforms thrive on drama and twists; with those kinds of incentives, it’s tempting to see every death as a murder, every murderer as a serial killer, and every investigation as a coverup. But the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office soon told reporters that it had ruled out Rodni’s ex-boyfriend as a person of interest; at the time of the party, he appears to have been hours away, in Napa Valley. Other search-and-rescue experts pointed out that it was not strange that Rodni was found in the back of her vehicle. The engine-heavy front end typically sinks first, and a person trapped inside will often clamber to the back to escape rising water. Fischer, the private investigator, tracked down grainy video footage from a wildfire camera overlooking Prosser Reservoir. On August 6th, around the time Rodni’s phone went dead, it showed a pair of headlights moving erratically toward the reservoir, near where Rodni’s car was eventually found, then vanishing. In October, the Nevada County coroner’s office declared that Rodni’s death had been an accidental drowning.
The official conclusions did not dissuade everyone. Robertson said that family members continue to receive “harassing,” “humiliating” phone calls from people who believed they had a role in her death. He quit social media, changed his e-mail address, and stopped answering the phone at the family business, a rustic lodge. The family ended up closing the lodge and moving elsewhere. Ryan Upchurch, a comedian and country rapper with more than three million YouTube followers, has been a particularly persistent conspiracist, insisting variously that Rodni’s family had faked her disappearance, and that she wasn’t even real. On Facebook, A.W.P. acknowledged the official findings, but its “MURDER or ACCIDENT” video is still up on YouTube. It does not mention that Rodni’s death has been ruled an accident. “Definitely smells like a conspiracy,” a recent commenter wrote. Leisek told me that he stands by A.W.P.’s handling of the case. “I still feel it’s foul play,” he said.
Last February, Leisek’s cousin Christy was sitting in a doctor’s office scrolling through Facebook when she saw a video about a group of divers who had solved a cold case. She clicked on the story and was shocked when Leisek’s face appeared. They hadn’t spoken in years. “I thought, That cannot be him. There’s no way that can be him,” she told me. (Christy is a pseudonym.)
Christy described her family as “your typical happy outer shell with that deep, dark inner circle that nobody knows anything about because everybody has just been taught to keep it quiet.” When Christy was nine or ten, she says, Leisek, who is about six years older, raped her. “There was a lot of abuse” in her family, she said. “But he took it many steps further.”
As an adult, Christy largely avoided Leisek. “I would never even go to the state of Oregon,” she said. In February, after she learned about A.W.P., she wrote Leisek a series of furious e-mails. “Do you feel better as a person doing things like this? . . . All these people may be calling you a hero and saying that you’re doing such great things. But we both know the truth about you.” She posted on an A.W.P. subreddit, telling Leisek’s fans that “the man they all think is a huge hero to the community is really not as great of a man as they might think.” Later that year, she pursued a prosecution in Utah. (The state has no statute of limitations for sex crimes against children.) Leisek was charged with two counts of rape of a child.
Soon the charging documents were circulating online, along with Leisek’s replies to Christy’s e-mails. In them, he referenced their shared family history of abuse, and alluded to earlier apologies for actions that he vaguely referred to as “the mistakes made in the past” and “those actions as a youth.” “It is unfortunate when families like ours experience molestation. . . . I have made peace in my life with all things bad including this,” he wrote. “Thank God we are not forever judged for our actions as youth and I’m grateful that many of us cousins acknowledged and stopped those sins which happened to us and those sins we once committed as a result of grooming.”
The A.W.P. YouTube channel quickly lost tens of thousands of subscribers, and a half-dozen members, including Bishop and Rinn, made videos announcing their resignations from the group. (Ginn had left earlier, saying in a live stream that he was perturbed when Leisek pleaded for donations, since Ginn believed the company was flush with cash: “What seemed to be people’s motives also didn’t sit right with me.” Leisek said that Ginn’s “outside perceptions are not the reality.”) Patricia Gager, Carey Mae Parker’s sister, wrote on Reddit that she was “triggered . . . almost to the point of insanity” by the news. Her sister had been the victim of sexual assault by their father, and then her bones had been found by a man who was accused of the same crime.
In videos, forums, and live streams, the true-crime community turned its skills on Leisek. “He certainly picked the wrong audience to commit a crime in front of didn’t he,” a poster wrote on Reddit, where former fans dissected Leisek’s mortgage documents. “I really felt like so much was hidden (or attempting to be hidden) in his language,” another said. Someone else brought up Leisek’s tearful video about his depression: “It seems in retrospect to have been some attempt to make a public apology in hopes it would keep this quiet.” Wary of running afoul of social-media algorithms that suppress videos that include certain words, people referred to the alleged crime as “R with a child” or, more surreally, as “child grape.” A member of Websleuths sent me a file she’d assembled on Leisek, including information about his bankruptcies, the house he’d recently bought, and a 2001 Securities and Exchange Commission judgment against him for a pump-and-dump stock-picking scheme. A judge cancelled an initial hearing in Leisek’s case after YouTubers attempted to live-stream it.
When I spoke with Leisek this spring, I assumed that he wouldn’t want to discuss his legal troubles. (One of the rape charges has been dropped. The prosecutor formerly assigned to the case told me that he expected the case to go to trial. If Leisek is found guilty, he will be sentenced as a juvenile.) Leisek said that his attorneys had advised him not to talk publicly about the case, but he seemed incapable of avoiding the subject. “I have kissing-cousin stuff that took place in my preteens. It is what it is. We can’t change that. But there was never any rape,” he told me, sounding slightly exasperated. In his telling, his cousin was a person who had “always been the victim in life” and “never accepted that this is our childhood.” When I asked Christy about this, she smiled wryly. “Yeah, well, he’s right about that,” she said. “I have never accepted that this is how our family is.”
Brandy said that she was “extremely distraught” after she learned of the allegations against Leisek: “Just this feeling of alienation and disgust. Like, I can’t believe I touched this person, let alone let them hug me. Being a victim of sexual abuse myself, I had a really, really hard time with that.” Her disgust was, disorientingly, mingled with a lingering gratitude. “His victim, she’s entitled to hate him, and I hope she gets the justice she deserves. But, I don’t know, he’s done good things for the world,” she said. She’d put her A.W.P. hat and her A.W.P. hoodie in the back of a closet, she told me, but she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away.
In May, I went to Tiptonville, Tennessee, where Leisek would attempt to recover the body of a woman who had drowned two months earlier. Nearly everyone he had worked with in the past few years had distanced themselves. Ex-team members told me that they’d hoped Leisek would resign from A.W.P., so that his scandal wouldn’t taint the group’s reputation; instead, after a brief hiatus he had continued posting videos on the YouTube channel as if nothing had changed. He insisted that things were better this way: “This brings it back to the authenticity of who Jared is.”
Leisek was travelling with a videographer named Judson Graham, a rangy, good-natured twenty-one-year-old acquaintance from the powered-paragliding world. We met at Sherry’s Kuntry Kupboard, a homey restaurant with a Christmas tree blinking in the corner and a taxidermied albino raccoon displayed on the wall. Leisek fiddled with a seal on his diving mask as other customers stopped by the table to chat. Everyone in the town, it seemed, had heard about him. Leisek leaned back in his chair, receiving well-wishes and basking in his temporary, small-town celebrity. “We’re going to bring grandma home,” he kept saying.
Several vehicles from the Lake County Rescue Squad and the sheriff’s office waited at a staging ground at the edge of the Mississippi River to assist with the search, which exceeded the capacity of their small-town department. Birds dipped low over the water; across its muddy expanse sat the wooded shore of Missouri. The “grandma” Leisek kept invoking was Rochelle Stanfield. “She was one of those real people,” her granddaughter Jaime Buffington told me. “She cussed, but she prayed. And she helped people.” Buffington showed me a picture on her phone: Stanfield with a fresh blue manicure, looking mischievous and pleased with herself. According to her family, Stanfield had become severely depressed after a recent illness. In March, her daughter, Patti Osborne, saw that she had posted “Goodbye” on Facebook. Osborne pulled up the location tracker that she’d put on her mother’s phone and the dot hovered at the edge of the Mississippi River. Then it jolted forward. By the time first responders arrived, Stanfield’s car was almost entirely under water. A number of search-and-rescue teams had attempted to retrieve the car and the body, with no luck.
Buffington seemed surprised at the leanness of the A.W.P. operation. “I thought it was going to be a whole group of people,” she told me. On scene, Leisek was efficient and purposeful. By midday, he had located Stanfield’s car and stretched lines from it to the shore, and the crowd had grown to include the mayor of a nearby county and the owner of the local Dairy Queen. Buffington was encouraged by the progress. “I’m really not trying to hate on the other people who were out there. I think they just didn’t have the experience,” she said.
Later that afternoon, Leisek sat in the R.V., giving his body a rest before diving again. His boots were caked in mud and his weariness seemed more than just physical. “You should have a buddy diver, but at the end of the day we’re all solo divers,” he said. (Graham later told me that Leisek kept diving even when his air tank was alarmingly low.) In Tiptonville, most people I spoke with didn’t know about Leisek’s rape charges; those who did were quick to dismiss them. “That was thirty years ago,” one man said, shrugging. The A.W.P. YouTube channel has more followers now than it’s ever had. Denunciations of Leisek make up one stream of content; A.W.P.’s heroics make up another. Both streams continue flowing along, largely unimpeded by the other.
Leisek decided that it was time for another attempt at attaching the towing gear to Stanfield’s car. He zipped up his drysuit and perched on the lip of the county’s rescue boat. It motored out to the buoy marking the vehicle’s location, Leisek’s legs dangling above the water. “He’s leading his best life, ain’t he?” a man watching said enviously. When the boat reached the buoy, Leisek pulled on his mask and slipped below the surface. From the sloping shore, the crowd watched the ripples above the space where he’d been, waiting for him to return, eager to hear what he’d found down in the murk. ♦