Amateur Missouri investigator, YouTube creator helps break decade-old missing person cold case

Jan 3, 2024, 4:07 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A decade-old cold case centered on a Navy veteran who disappeared without a trace in rural Missouri is hot again after an amateur sleuth and YouTube creator’s help led police to unidentified human remains.

Donnie Erwin, a 59-year-old Camdenton resident, went missing on Dec. 29, 2013, after he went out for cigarettes and never returned. His disappearance piqued the interest of longtime true crime enthusiast and videographer James Hinkle last year, and the Youtuber spent a year tracing generations of Erwin’s relatives and spending his free time searching for him after work, documenting his efforts on his channel. He eventually discovered Erwin’s car hidden in a small pond.

Deputies and firefighters pulled Erwin’s algae-encrusted Hyundai Elantra and a titanium hip from a roadside drainage pond less than 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from his home in December 2023, almost exactly a decade after he went missing.

“While a forensic pathologist will have to examine the remains to determine for certain if they are indeed those of Mr. Erwin, investigators are confident the hip and remains belong to him,” the Camden County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

The case had gone dormant for years after Erwin’s disappearance, frustrating investigators and his family. Yvonne Erwin-Bowen, Erwin’s sister, said she felt emotions beyond pain, frustration, aggravation and sorrow that she “can’t even label.”

“This is one of those cases that keeps you up,” sheriff’s office spokesperson Sgt. Scott Hines said. “Because the car just disappeared, and zero signs of him anywhere.”

Hinkle had skills that equipped him to take up the search.

“I just decided, well, I’m a scuba diver. I’m a drone pilot already,” Hinkle said. “I’m like, what the heck? I’ll just go look.”

“Just go look” turned into a year of Hinkle searching, and in his final hunt, he visited every nearby pond, including bodies of water that had already been searched and searched again. Hinkle, along with another true crime junkie acting as his partner, planned to wait until the winter so algae obscuring the water would be dead and nearby trees would have lost their leaves.

Hinkle finally found luck retracing possible routes from Erwin’s home to the convenience store where he bought cigarettes, then pinpointing roadside cliffs steep enough to hide an overturned car from passing drivers.

From there, Hinkle flew his drone by a pond so tiny he had previously written it off, where he found a tire.

When he returned a few days later with a sonar-equipped kayak and his camera to find a large car in the middle of the pond’s shallow waters, he called the sheriff.

Hines said the car’s discovery marked “the new beginning of the investigation.”

“Everything we’ve done up to the last 10 years has led us basically nowhere.” Hines said. “And then suddenly, here’s this vehicle.”

Cadaver dogs brought in by volunteers later alerted to the scent of possible human remains in the pond, which will be drained for any additional evidence, Hines said.

Erwin-Bowen said the strangers who for years helped her search the area and the support she received from a Facebook page she dedicated to finding her brother taught her “there is still good in people.”

“If it wasn’t for the public, I don’t think that we’d be where we’re at today,” Erwin-Bowen said. “Because they kept his face alive.”


Ahmed reported from Minneapolis and is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15

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Amateur Missouri investigator, YouTube creator helps break decade-old missing person cold case