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Police divers assist in Ohio River clean-up (and maybe solve a cold case in the process)

A wet chassis from an automobile, complete with tires and engine, sits on a barge in the Ohio River. The Cincinnati skyline is in the far distance.
Callie Schazer
Living Lands and Waters
A wet chassis from an automobile, complete with tires and engine, sits on a barge in the Ohio River.

Local law enforcement officers are helping to clean up the Ohio River and some cold cases this week. Members of the Hamilton County Police Association Dive and Recovery Team are working with Living Lands and Waters to remove vehicles from under the water.

Callie Schaser with the nonprofit group says they arrived in the area last Friday with a barge and an excavator and have pulled nine vehicles from the water already. She says for the last months, divers have been finding sunken cars using sonar and marking them with buoys. Schaser says they marked about 20.

The partnership started with the tornadoes in Kentucky and Indiana last December. Schaser says they knew there would be a lot of debris in Kentucky Lake along the Tennessee River.

Living Lands and Waters went down there with our excavator barge and our little tugboat, and tried to remove as much as we could," she says.

She says they pulled 1.2 million pounds of debris from the water.

“We noticed there was still a ton of debris under the water that we couldn’t see and we weren’t getting, so we hosted a dive event.” Schaser says they invited dive teams from across the country to help identify underwater debris in May. Divers from the Hamilton County Police Association showed up to help.

“After the event … we said ‘Hey, if there’s anything else you guys need, let us know.’ Right away, they were like, ‘Actually... ' "

Schaser says the two groups have been working together to pull vehicles out since then. “Our missions are kind of unified. We want to get bad things out of the river that are dangerous, and these policemen want to get them out as well and potentially solve a cold case.”

The vehicles, Schaser says, are typically by boat ramps, where they can easily roll into the river. “When we pull them out of the water, we look for the VIN number, license plate or some type of way to identify the car. And they send it in and see if there’s any hits on it. Was this a missing person case; was this a stolen car; was anybody murdered?"

She says nothing has been cracked so far.

Schaser says Tuesday they recovered a minivan with Tennessee plates. “There was nothing connected to it. It could be anything.” She says the search can mean closure for someone.

A wrecked, blackened station wagon sits on a barge. An excavator looms over it. The Northern Kentucky Water District's Ohio River Pump Station is in the background.
Callie Schazer
Living Lands and Waters
A member of the HCPA dive team looks over a minivan pulled from the Ohio River, near Cincinnati's California neighborhood.

For Living Lands and Waters, the effort means a cleaner river. “The main hazard would be all the hazardous waste — the fuel, the oil, the diesel, the gas. That’s a big thing, and it’s just sitting in there, slowing escaping.”

Schaser says during the removal, they try not to break the cars so more pollution isn’t released. She says they set up booms to contain what does leak.

“Wildlife, they’re going to be suffering from it. And all the people that are drinking from the Ohio,” she says. “The more we can get out the better.”

The clean-up effort should end Wednesday or Thursday.

Corrected: October 25, 2022 at 3:10 PM EDT
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Callie Schaser's name.
Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.