Diving for YouTube views, solving cold cases, finding the disappeared

Acworth resident left car repair job to become aquatic mystery solver.
Jeremy Sides holds a necklace that he found while diving in the Chattahoochee River for his YouTube channel, Exploring with Nug, Sides began his adventuring career as a treasure hunt, but recently began solving cold cases, finding the sunken vehicles of individuals missing for years. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Jeremy Sides holds a necklace that he found while diving in the Chattahoochee River for his YouTube channel, Exploring with Nug, Sides began his adventuring career as a treasure hunt, but recently began solving cold cases, finding the sunken vehicles of individuals missing for years. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

GADSDEN, Ala. — On a sunny afternoon in early January, Jeremy Sides, an Acworth dad, floated in a creek near Gadsden, Alabama, hoping to find a dead man.

The air temperature was 50 degrees, but the water temperature was in the 40s, cold enough to feel like fire on exposed skin. Sides and his scuba-diving colleague Adam Brown had already scouted this leg of Big Wills Creek with side-scan sonar, and the grainy, brown-and-black images on the screen indicated a truck-sized shadow under 10 feet of water, just downstream from the Black Creek Parkway bridge.

They were looking for a 74-year-old man named Oscar King, last seen on Dec. 2, 2013, at his home in nearby Centre, Alabama. Neither King nor his truck, a blue Dodge Dakota, has surfaced since then.

Sides and Brown tied a strong magnet to a rope and dropped it below, where it grabbed something metal and held tight. They tied the other end of the line to a buoy, marking the location.

Then, after recording an intro for their online audiences, the two hoisted tanks of compressed air onto their backs and slipped into the frigid water.

Visibility is often very low in the creeks and rivers in Georgia, which hampers the recovery efforts of scuba divers such as Jeremy Sides. The worst conditions are known as "Braille" dives.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The creek was the color and clarity of pea soup. Visibility was near zero. “I hate this part,” said Sides as his hands quickly went numb inside his gloves. The beginning of an ice cream headache crept around his face mask.

A third member of the group, Chris Overstreet, waited in a kayak up above. Steady traffic on the nearby bridge created a gentle sound of surf, interrupted suddenly by a splash like a cannonball hitting the water.

“What the (heck) was that?” said Overstreet.

No answer. Perhaps a beaver. Finally Brown surfaced in a plume of compressed bubbles.

“What color is it?” shouted Overstreet.

“Red,” said Brown. “It’s a Silverado 2500.”

Overstreet was crestfallen. “That’s not what we’re looking for, is it?”

A fellow scuba diver Britain Lockhart (left) films as Jeremy Sides prepares to dive in the Chattahoochee River for his YouTube channel, Exploring with Nug. Sides first began searching creeks and rivers for gold nuggets and Civil War artifacts, but has become adept at locating missing persons and solving cold cases.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

YouTube scuba star

Sides, 42, a former Navy man and father of two, is an entrepreneur and a metal-detecting hobbyist, who started out searching for Civil War relics in the woods and creeks around Acworth.

His fondness for finding gold nuggets earned him the nickname “Nug,” and he began documenting his exploits on his YouTube channel, Exploring with Nug.

Eventually he was earning enough YouTube revenue to give up his business repairing automobiles, and he turned to full-time adventuring, scouring trash out of rivers and finding abandoned guns, a few pipe bombs, the occasional diamond ring and vintage bottles. He invested in sonar equipment and scuba gear to take his searches underwater.

Dental historians believe these false teeth were made sometime in the 1800s and were fashioned from ivory and gold. They are among the strange objects Jeremy Sides has discovered diving in creeks and rivers. Photo: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

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Credit: Bo Emerson

His career took a dramatic turn in November when he scanned the creeks around Sparta, Tennessee, and found a submerged Pontiac with two teenagers inside. They were Jeremy Bechtel and Erin Foster, missing since April 3, 2000.

“Do you know how big this is?” White County Sheriff Steve Page told him on the phone, when Sides called in to report the discovery. “Brother, this is the case of a lifetime, for me and you.”

Just a month earlier Sides had solved another missing person case, locating a car in Melton Hill Lake carrying Miriam Ruth Hemphill, an 84-year-old Oak Ridge, Tennessee, woman, missing since 2005.

Visitors to his YouTube channel doubled within a few days. The segment documenting the Sparta discovery has been seen by 4.6 million viewers.

Holding the audience

Sides and Brown, 28, motored back to the shore and stripped out of their dry suits. Sides fetched clothes from his customized Dodge ProMaster van, a high-roofed ride tricked out with wooden racks on the interior to hold scuba tanks, winches, inflatable kayaks and a bunk in case he needs to spend the night.

Looking through his phone, he found a number for deputy Steven Hooks, a long-time member of the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department trained in scuba rescue and recovery, to report the discovery.

Hooks was familiar with the Acworth man diving the creeks around Gadsden and Rainbow City. Sides had been in the area checking into another case, an 84-year-old woman named Virginia Collier missing for two years. In a third Gadsden case, Sides believes he already found the Ford Bronco that a missing 25-year-old crashed into a Gadsden creek back in 1980, though police haven’t offered confirmation.

With the help of his wife Candice, who coordinates research into possible cases through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) website and Charley Project databases of the missing, Sides cross-references cases that involve a vehicle and a town — like Gadsden —with multiple creeks and rivers.

Nine times out of ten, he said, that missing car or truck is under water.

Sides is part of a growing group of freelance sleuths seeking out mysteries and posting their exploits online. Brown has his own YouTube channel, Adam Brown Adventures, as does Chris Overstreet, Wolf Creek Outdoors.

The Oregon-based group, Adventures with Purpose, was created by diver Jared Leisek, who has drawn 1.7 million subscribers to his channel and solved more than a dozen cold cases.

Leisek and Sides collaborated on the search for Collier. This month they will be investigating several submerged vehicles in Florida.

Like Leisek, Sides has made hundreds of videos. Sides has 270,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and about the same number of subscribers to his videos on Facebook.

He is adept at sandwiching a mention of a sponsor inside his narratives, whether it’s a local towing company or a dive shop; this helps get him deals on equipment.

Though he describes himself as introverted, on camera he is lively, drawing his audience into the action. “That’s nuts! Look at this, it’s so weird!” he tells his GoPro, as he floats on Big Wills Creek. “There’s no easy way for a truck to get here.”

Sides also knows how to put a story together in the editing booth to maximize drama.

In the video of his hunt for the two teenagers from Sparta, Tennessee, Sides’ underwater camera closes in on their suspected sedan, and we see it’s covered in a mat of algae. He reaches forward and runs his hand over the rear of the car, clouding the water with debris, then revealing the insignia: Pontiac, and the license tag number: 473-EJR.

“It’s them,” he says to the camera. “They’re coming home.”

Jeremy Sides (right) traveled to Gadsden, Alabama, recently to try to solve a cold-case disappearance, meeting up with fellow diver Adam Brown. Photo: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

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Credit: Bo Emerson

Another dead end

In Gadsden, the Oscar King mystery remained unsolved. The red Silverado with the vanity tag KEV-G is obviously not a blue Dakota. It doesn’t show up on any missing person reports nor on the list of stolen vehicles.

Law enforcement officers from nearby Rainbow City and the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department stop by to meet with Sides and run the tag, standing in this trash-strewn bend in the creek, marked by a flat place to launch small boats, a camp-site and a fire-ring. They find nothing. The truck is in an inconvenient locale, between high shores on one side, and private property on the other, and the department makes no immediate plan to tow it out of the water..

(It is surprising how a full-size pickup can hide in this small creek and remain undiscovered except as a snag for fishing lines.)

Hooks, with the Sheriff’s Department, said he had no problem with private divers such as Sides and Brown searching for missing vehicles, as long as they don’t disturb a crime scene. Finding a car that might resolve a years-long cold case? “I call that throwing us a bone,” he said.

Sides will still get an entertaining video out of the day’s work (so will Brown) and will make the two-hour drive back home to Candice and their children, Fiona, 10 and Gavin, 7.

Jewelry, pipe bombs, abandoned handguns and a bona fide Civil War-era bayonet are among the items YouTube personality Jeremy Sides has recovered from creeks and rivers around Atlanta.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A different hero

Candice, a veterinarian technician, said she is essentially a single mom when Sides is on the road, but when he’s back home he’s the one watching the kids after school.

Also, “there’s a greater good” to his work, that makes it easy to tolerate his absences, she said. “He’s helping solve missing persons cases,” and bringing peace to many families.

Positive results ripple out from these resolutions. Police searching for the teenagers who disappeared in Sparta, Tennessee, were distracted by false leads that suggested foul play, drugs and murder, according to news reports.

After Sides resolved the case, he was contacted by the family member of a man who had been a suspect. Investigators had used ground-penetrating radar in the suspect’s basement and dug up his pet cemetery, said Candice.

“He had been black sheep of the community, with people basically thinking he murdered those kids,” she said. Jeremy’s revelation, that the teenagers died in an accident on the way home from a party when their car plunged into the creek, finally lifted that burden.

Solving those mysteries draws a large audience online, said Sides, but it also brings about a world of good.

His colleague Adam Brown agreed. “Cleaning up trash and finding guns and stuff is great, but if we’re able to help families, it’s next level. It’s the best thing we can do with our skills.”

After finding Jeremy Bechtel and Erin Foster, Sides speaks to the camera, his face a clash of emotions. “I’m lost,” he said, “I’m at a loss for words. I’m so glad I could find them, and I’m so sad that that’s where they ended up. I can’t believe its been over 20 years of them just sitting there, waiting for someone to find them. And I’m glad I did.”

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