Story by Amanda Jackson, CNN Video by Demetrius Pipkin, CNN
When Margaret “Jan” Shupe Smith, 59, vanished near Lakeland, Florida last year, her family and police were baffled.
She was supposed to pick up her daughter, Marley Shupe, after work on April 2, 2021, and was last seen driving a moss green-colored Kia Soul. It was not like her mom to not show up, Shupe said. Smith was a feisty woman and loved spending time with her grandchildren.
“She had a big heart, was very kind and caring and loving,” Shupe said. “She would give you her shirt off her back if you needed it.”
Michelle Sanders, one of Smith’s relatives, told CNN she had been a big fan of a YouTube channel called Adventures with Purpose (AWP), which documented the work of a scuba diving team.
AWP have made it their mission to help families find missing loved ones across the nation, and have helped solve 19 cold cases since 2019. Their YouTube channel has nearly 1.8 million subscribers and 15 million views a month, according to Jared Leisek, founder of AWP.
After Smith went missing, Sanders said she submitted her case details over the summer to AWP, knowing it might be a long shot. AWP agreed to take the case, and CNN came along.
Searching for answers
The group, which includes a diver, two cameramen and Leisek, packed up an RV and trailer last month. They headed out on a 45-day trek across the southeast starting in Oklahoma, then into Texas and across to Florida, according to Leisek.
“This trip is staying a little further south, “Leisek told CNN. “And we’ve never actually been to Florida for any other cases. So, this will be our first time into Florida, and we hope to be successful as well.”
The group didn’t start off solving cold cases, Leisek started the channel three years ago to document his diving journey with the goal of picking up 2,000 pounds of trash littering waterways in three months.
The mission evolved into finding submerged vehicles.
“Well, it didn’t take long, and only took me two to three weeks to actually meet that goal,” Leisek told CNN.
“And in the process of doing this, fast-forward about nine months of finding cellphones and sunglasses and, you know, pop cans and just garbage in general. I accidentally ran into a vehicle that was 40 feet underwater in Portland, Oregon.”
The YouTube channel picked up popularity as viewers watched what he discovered in the murky waterways.
The group’s diving skills eventually caught the attention of Nathan Ashby’s family in Warren County, Missouri. Ashby, 22, went missing July 31, 2019. He was last seen leaving for work in the early morning hours driving a pickup truck.
In August, authorities using sonar discovered a pickup truck submerged in the Missouri River but due to conditions of the river it was deemed unsafe for a recovery team to dive into the water, according to a news release from the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.
On December 29, 2019, a day after Ashby’s birthday, AWP was able to successfully dive into the river and confirm the truck was his. Ashby’s remains were found in the vehicle.
Since then, the group has helped solve 19 missing people cold cases. Currently, they have a solvability rate of about 20 percent, according to Leisek. Last fall, during the group’s last tour, they set out to solve 27 cold cases in search of 36 missing people, according to data on their website. They helped recover 11 people.
“We’re very fortunate that these families have allowed us to share their stories with something as so intimate and personal to them, with the understanding and the appreciation that they were able to find us because the families before them shared their stories,” said Leisek.
The divers don’t charge families or police for their services and are fully funded by their social media channels and donations.
The group only takes on cases where foul play is not suspected. Leisek adds the older the case is, the more speculation and rumors swirl around what might have happened. He adds many police departments might not have the resources on hand or the equipment AWP has to search bodies of water.
Last minute tip leads to a discovery
Last Tuesday, AWP started searching bodies of water around the area Smith was thought to have been last seen. After exploring several locations and coming across two unrelated submerged vehicles, the group received a tip from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Smith was in a minor traffic accident the night she went missing, deputies said, in a different area than they were searching.
Before hitting pause on her case and moving on, they decided to try one more time.
The next morning, they drove out to a retention pond in a newly-developed neighborhood. When Smith went missing, it was at night, and she couldn’t see well at night, according to Sanders. The neighborhood was also under construction, which could have led to her being confused with her surroundings, causing her to accidentally drive into the water.
CNN was on the scene documenting the group’s efforts, when in the middle of the pond, just 18 inches under the water’s surface, the team’s sonar equipment picked up on a vehicle which looked like a Kia Soul, the type of car Smith was last seen in.
One of the divers swam down to check the license plate. It matched Smith’s.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene. They pulled the car out of the water, and a female’s body was recovered inside, according to a news release. The remains still have to be positively matched before confirming it is Smith, according to authorities.
“This was a tragic accident, and our prayers are with the family,” Grady Judd, Polk County Sheriff, said in the release. “We’re grateful for Adventures with Purpose working with us in locating the vehicle.”
Sanders added the family now has the closure they need, and can now start the grieving process.
“I got mixed emotions. I’m super happy and excited,” said Sanders. “On the flip side, my heart breaks for Marley, at least she knows now that it was an accident.”
When the scene was cleared, AWP packed up their gear and headed out to find a laundromat and place to shower, as their life on the road continues to their next case.
“I hope to be doing this for the next five, 10, 15 years,” said Leisek. “You know, I’ll do it as long as I can because again, it’s in … the human nature to help out one another.”
Leisek’s goal for the group is to conduct two tours a year, each 45 days long across the US.
“It’s because of you, the viewers that are watching, liking, subscribing and sharing our videos and getting the word out as to what we’re capable of and sharing it,” said Leisek. “So that way, the next family can also find us in the same way.”
One item they sell through their website is an emergency window breaker and seat belt cutter, an item Sanders believes would have helped Smith escape.
“If more people had something like that, we wouldn’t have cases like Jan’s today,” she said.
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