Car in the river, unexplained death: Mysteries like Toni Anderson’s happen all the time

Police believe Toni Anderson entered the water from the boat ramp near where she was found in her car in the river. Well-wishers have left a makeshift memorial near the ramp.
Police believe Toni Anderson entered the water from the boat ramp near where she was found in her car in the river. Well-wishers have left a makeshift memorial near the ramp. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

After a search team hauled Toni Anderson’s car out of the Missouri River last month, some found it hard to buy the police theory that she drove off a boat ramp into the water and drowned.

But those who work in the world of watery graves say it happens all the time.

People park by a river and roll into the water with no one there to witness it. They take a curve too fast, go off the road into a lake. They fall off the face of the earth in a mishap that is almost too senseless, too pedestrian, for anyone to believe it without seeing it with their own eyes.

In interviews with The Star, the lead Kansas City police investigator in Anderson’s case, the Illinois man who found her car, and an expert in vehicle drowning deaths explained why those close to the case think Anderson died accidentally. New details help explain why Anderson drove to the area where she was found, and why police say they see no evidence of foul play.

Still, no one knows for sure just what befell the 20-year-old University of Missouri-Kansas City student after she left her job as a server at the Chrome strip club, on U.S. 40 on the east side of Kansas City, about 4 a.m. Jan. 15. Just how did she end up 20 feet underwater, inside her Ford Focus, at that spot along the river at Platte Landing Park, instead of meeting friends near downtown as she had planned?

Searchers didn’t find her body in her car near the boat ramp in Parkville until March 10. Her disappearance had led to speculation and headlines across the country.

A cryptic text message she sent before she died, saying she was pulled over by police again, led many to wonder if she had come across a police impersonator or rogue cop. Her family speculated she might be a victim of human trafficking.

But The Star found that the timing of that text message seems to contradict those theories.

Kansas City police say they can’t rule out a homicide until they have an autopsy report that is still weeks away.

But to those doubting that the car went down the boat ramp — it was found some distance downstream — police point out that the vehicle was intact when pulled from the river. That indicates to them that it had not gone across a river bank lined with small boulders.

“Based upon the damage to the vehicle,” said Sgt. Ben Caldwell, a supervisor with the Police Department’s missing persons, cold case section, “it appears that it drove off the boat ramp.”

He said police are still working on details to support their theory.

“We are still trying to figure all of that out,” Caldwell said. “What makes sense? What is the most logical explanation for her disappearance, and then is there anything to contradict that or corroborate that?”

About 400 people drown in vehicles every year in the U.S. Some aren’t found for decades: Grisly discoveries in Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina recently closed missing persons cases that dated back as far as the 1960s. Many, like Anderson, were found by search crews with new sonar equipment, near the end of a boat ramp.

Those who study vehicular drownings say a sinking car can be escaped, but panic and mistakes often lead people to terrifying deaths.

Into the river

“I don’t believe by any stretch of the imagination that this was anything but a tragic accident,” said Dennis Watters, part of the husband-and-wife water search team who found Anderson’s car.

“I don’t think there’s anything suspicious about it.”

Watters, speaking weeks later by phone from his office in Moro, Ill., has seen many accidents that look the same. He and his wife started Team Watters Sonar Search and Recovery in 2005 after finding a car with a body inside in the Mississippi River while testing sonar fish-finding equipment.

The car and the body belonged to a retired school teacher who, three years earlier, plunged into the water while parking her car.

Since then, the Watters team has recovered 86 bodies, about a dozen in circumstances similar to Anderson’s.

One example from southern Illinois: Chrisandra Williams, found in 2014 inside her SUV in the Ohio River nearly four months after she disappeared. Watters said he thinks Williams had left her boyfriend’s house one night after drinking, stopped in a park along the river, and somehow drove over a stretch of grass into the water.

Watters said it took him about 20 minutes to find the vehicle after months of local search efforts failed. He used the same techniques in Anderson’s case.

“If you’re in the river and there’s a point where there’s nothing to stop a car from going into the river, we search right there,” he said.

Watters said Anderson’s father called him for help and led him to the area near Platte Landing Park, because cellphone tower information pointed there and because it was close to Anderson’s bank, where she was expected to go that morning to make a car payment, possibly by depositing cash at an ATM. The bank is only a mile as the crow flies from where Anderson was found.

After searching a pond near the bank, Watters took his team straight to the boat ramp. First, his team recovered an SUV that had nothing to do with the case. Then they found Anderson’s car about 800 feet downstream from the ramp.

A car will float for up to seven minutes after entering the water, and the current at that point was strong — 7 mph, Watters said. “That’s the farthest I’ve ever seen a car get from a boat ramp, probably, but it’s also the hardest current I’ve dealt with.

“I think she went to that place and fell asleep, and it rolled right into the water,” Watters said. “It wouldn’t be uncommon.”

The boat ramp is a dark and lonely place in the early morning hours, lit by a single streetlight. It sits at the end of an access road through the park that can be confusing at night. At the end of that road stands a small stop sign. A car would enter the ramp by making a sharp left turn.

A second stop sign stands at the lip of the ramp, where a crosswalk of thick white stripes marks the pavement. A sign warns: “No fishing from the boat ramp.”

Now, in the grass, well-wishers have left a memorial of flowers with an angel statuette. Spelled out in stones: “Toni.”

How Anderson wound up there remains unknown. Police reports and surveillance video show that, after leaving Chrome, she drove across the river, where a North Kansas City police officer pulled her over for an illegal lane usage about 4:30 a.m. near 26th and Burlington streets.

Anderson told the officer she was almost out of gas. The officer let Anderson off with a warning and watched her drive to a nearby QuikTrip. Anderson tried to pay for gas at the pump, but her debit card was declined. She went inside to pay, came out and filled up her gas tank.

The store’s video surveillance camera captured all of this. Anderson was still at the gas station at 4:42 a.m. when she sent a friend the text message that later struck some as suspicious: “OMG OMG just got pulled over again.”

Some wondered if by writing “again” Anderson meant she had been pulled over a second time that night — perhaps by a police impersonator or a rogue cop.

But Anderson didn’t leave the gas station until 4:49 a.m. She had, however, gotten two speeding tickets months earlier: one in Boone County on March 5, 2016, and another in Linn County on July 4. She had also gotten tickets in her hometown of Wichita.

“The text is what made this sensational from the get-go,” said Caldwell, the Kansas City police missing persons supervisor. “The text that she was being pulled over again and that was falsely interpreted by many that she was stopped twice.

“Those are sexy headlines,” Caldwell said. “Neither theory had any fruit and turned out not to be true at all.”

When Anderson left the gas station, she drove north. Investigators think Anderson drove westbound along the Missouri 9 corridor toward Parkville, remaining there until at least 6 a.m., when her phone shut off.

If Anderson arrived at Platte Landing Park at 6 a.m., it would have been more than an hour before sunrise. That weekend, a major ice storm — dubbed Ice-ageddon — never materialized, but a cold drizzle left a glaze of ice over the city. The boat ramp would have been wet and slick that Sunday morning.

Many left wondering

Friends and family searched Platte Landing Park many times while Anderson was missing, said her mother, Liz Anderson.

“Something kept drawing us back to that park area,” Liz Anderson said. “We have no idea — maybe she was going to the bank to deposit some money and got confused on her GPS.”

Liz Anderson said police gave her access to the case evidence. The only injury to Anderson, her mother said, was a bruise on her knee — the mother thinks Anderson got it by knocking off a GPS device under the dashboard.

At one time, the Police Department had 12 detectives on the case, Liz Anderson said. She has resigned herself to the idea that her daughter died in an accident.

“We are at inner peace with God,” she said. “Everybody said that she had an old soul. We just feel, and reflecting on that now, maybe this was God’s plan, that she was only going to be here for this amount of time.”

At Chrome, one coworker accepted it as an accident. Others weren’t so sure.

One employee, who asked not to be named, hoped the investigation would reveal more. “She had no reason to be there,” the employee said. “I don’t understand how she could accidentally drive into the river.”

Club employees held a memorial service for Anderson about two weeks after her body was found. Another employee who asked not to be named said she and Anderson had planned a road trip to Colorado for Anderson’s 21st birthday, which would have been April 5.

Anderson will be missed, the employee said. “She was so beautiful, she could just stand there and people would give her money.”

Working at the club means taking precautions, employees said. Female workers aren’t allowed to leave until the parking lot empties of customers. But none expressed any specific fears about coming to work, or knew of any threats against Anderson.

Cold water, strong currents

Detectives say they’ve narrowed the investigation down to a few loose ends. A preliminary medical examiner’s report showed no signs of foul play, but they are still waiting for a toxicology report.

“One of the things that we are working on is what she was doing during that last hour after the stop, what she was doing around that area (when) she disappeared,” Caldwell said.

No surveillance video exists in the park. Anderson does not appear to have been strangled, police say. She was fully clothed. Her driver’s-side car window was down — which might have provided an escape if she was alive when the car sank.

The water temperature that day was 39 degrees.

“Even if somebody tried to get out, the hypothermia would set in very, very quickly,” Caldwell said. “You know, we are talking about freezing cold water and with hypothermia, you can’t think straight, you can’t control your limbs very well.”

The car was found upside-down, which researchers say is typical. Police think it probably entered nose-first into the water, and the current turned it to face upstream.

Police say they think the car entered the water by the boat ramp, in part because falling in at some point along the rocky river bank would have caused damage they don’t see. Watters, from the search team, agreed: “It would have been shredded.”

Investigators also found no signs of a car rolling through the grassy treeline along the bank.

It remains possible that someone pushed the car, with Anderson inside, down the boat ramp. Experts who track deaths in submerged vehicles say they’ve seen such cases.

In the Ford Focus, that would require pressing on the brake while putting the car in neutral, then getting out safely and sending the car down the ramp.

If evidence of foul play exists, it could come out in the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office’s autopsy.

Any clues on Anderson’s body likely were preserved in the cold water, according to Chris Berry, CEO of Frontier Forensics Midwest, a private autopsy firm in Kansas City.

But the idea that water in the lungs indicates drowning is mostly myth, Berry said. “Anytime you die, you’re going to have fluid in the lungs.”

Kansas City police don’t find many bodies in submerged vehicles. But it does occur around the country regularly.

Some deaths remain mysterious long after the bodies are discovered, as with some recent finds by searchers using new sonar equipment of the type used by the Watters team. As in Anderson’s case, they often find vehicles underwater near the end of a boat ramp.

Such was the case of two rusted old cars pulled four years ago from a lake in Oklahoma. Inside, authorities found the bodies of six people who had been missing for more than 40 years. Locals had puzzled over the disappearances, at times suspecting murder.

How they ended up in the lake, and how they died, remains unknown.

Two years ago in Miami County, Kan., a fisherman found the remains of a Paola man missing for more than 20 years. The dead man was still buckled in the driver’s seat of his car underwater, 40 yards from a boat ramp.

The same year in North Carolina, divers with sonar equipment in a lake found a man in his car missing since 1972. Similar cases have been reported in Chicago, Dallas and elsewhere. A search team in Houston six years ago found 127 cars in the bayous while looking for a missing person.

Seat belt off, window open, get out

Researchers say it doesn’t have to happen as often as it does.

“It’s not uncommon for people to drive down boat ramps,” said Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada, who studies death by drowning in vehicles. “It’s surprising, how many.”

More than half of the victims die in cars, nearly 40 percent in streams and rivers. Escape is possible, according to Giesbrecht, who has boiled his advice down to four steps:

Take off your seat belt. Open a window. Get any children out ahead of you through the window, and get out. You have about one minute, Giesbrecht said, before water pressure keeps the windows from opening, trapping you inside.

“If you follow the instructions, it’s very straightforward,” Giesbrecht said. “It’s very survivable.”

One problem is that power windows can fail within a minute of being exposed to water. Products to help break a car window include a specially-designed hammer for $14.95 and a key chain tool with a spring-loaded bolt to shatter glass for $12.95.

Often people die because they panic. Or they fall victim to an old myth: that they should wait for the car to fill with water, equalizing the pressure so they can open the doors.

“Don’t even think about the door,” Giesbrecht said. “If you stay in the car, you’re going to die. If you use your cellphone to call 911, you’re going to die for sure.”

Giesbrecht has listened to 911 call recordings from people who are trapped inside sinking cars.

“It’s a terrifying way to die,” he said. “It’s very scary.”

Ian Cummings: 816-234-4633, @Ian__Cummings

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

Escape a sinking car

1. Take off your seat belt.

2. Open a window.

3. Get any children out ahead of you through the window.

4. Get out.