In the early reports this weekend about the discovery of Toni Anderson’s car in the Missouri River, there was a buried but intriguing detail — regarding who found it. It wasn’t the Kansas City Police Department: it was a husband and wife team of competitive anglers-turned-aquatic search and rescue outfit.
Anderson, 20, had been missing for almost two months when authorities announced on Friday that her car had been found in the river, a few miles from downtown Kansas City where she was last seen on the morning of January 15, after leaving her job as a server at a club. She was reportedly last seen by a police officer who pulled her over in the early morning for an improper lane change, and then watched her drive into a convenience store to fill her gas tank.
Authorities have not publicly identified the body found in the driver’s seat of the vehicle, but Toni’s parents have told reporters they have been led to believe it is their daughter and advised to make funeral arrangements.
Team Watters (you read that right) Sonar Search and Recovery are Tammy and Dennis Watters of Moro, Illinois, who got into the “business” (theirs is a nonprofit) of helping law enforcement with waterway searches quite accidentally in 2005, when sonar equipment they used for fishing in the Mississippi River led them to the vehicle of a woman who had been missing for three years.
“It’s something we didn’t know we [were] going to do, but once we’ve done it — once we’ve helped somebody — now we can’t say no,” Tammy Watters told The Chicago Tribune.
Tammy spoke to Crime Online about how she and her husband came to find Anderson’s car in an area that had already been searched by investigators. She told us that she and Dennis had been following the case closely since Toni disappeared on January 15, and had noticed as the investigation pressed on with no leads, Facebook posts from family members had turned to a theory about Toni being kidnapped by human traffickers.
Dennis Watters responded to one of those posts — Tammy said she believed it was written by Toni’s aunt — telling her “not to give up on the water,” Tammy said, and to give them a call.
“Normally we don’t reach out, but we had a feeling she was in the water somewhere,” she said, explaining that in Team Watters’s experience, if a missing persons investigation involving a car goes for a month without the car surfacing, that usually means the vehicle is “either in the water or in this deep ravine that nobody can find.”
Indeed, extensive searches of the river by police investigators found nothing. Mrs. Watters said this was understandable: Not only does Team Watters likely have more sophisticated equipment than law enforcement, as specialists, they have more experience.
“We use it all the time,” she said. “They use it when they have to.”
Mrs. Watters said she and her husband heard from Toni’s father, Brian Anderson, the day after her husband posted the Facebook message. Tammy said Brian’s father contacted the Kansas City police to let them know the family was planning to work with independent investigators.
“And within just a few minutes a detective called and said he would gladly take our help,” Tammy said.
The Watters live a four-and-a-half hour drive from Kansas City, and reportedly arrived last Wednesday to do the targeted search. Investigators had previously traced Anderson’s cell phone to Parkville, a riverside city about five miles from downtown Kansas City, where Anderson was said to have been going that night. It remains unclear why she would have driven so far out of the way.
The Watters were able to find the car on the same day they began the search, last Wednesday, but it took them hours. And it was two days before the car was recovered from the river.
“We didn’t find it until late Wednesday evening, and we emailed the detective we were working with,” Tammy said. “He got back with us the next morning, and a couple of detectives actually came out on the boat with us and saw [via sonar] the car for themselves.”
Tammy explained that it took a while to put a dive team together since they were coming from all over the state.
She and her husband both believe that if even another week had gone by, the car may have disappeared for good.
“Within a week or two it would have been covered up with sand,” Tammy said.
At the same time, she said she understands why an earlier search — and KCPD reportedly used sonar detection to search the same area of the river — would have missed the vehicle.
“When the car first goes into the water, it’s so slick and shiny that our sonar bounces off it –it barely gives us a flash,” Tammy said. The image received won’t resemble a car.
The Watters also noticed another vehicle in the water, which Tammy said was a Lincoln Navigator. That car, she said, had clearly been in the river for quite a while. “The longer it’s in there, the more detail you get,” Tammy said.
She also said that as Toni’s car was 20 feet underwater, it would have been impossible to see with the naked eye even if you knew exactly where to look. The Watters never got close to the car, she said.
Asked how she thought Toni and her car might have ended up in the river, Tammy said she had seen cases before where a car has unknowingly driven down a boat ramp: “You’re in the water before you know it.”
But as far as how Toni ended up near the boat ramp in the first place, she said, “That’s something that the investigators are going to have to try and figure out.”
Photo: Police handout