SPARTA, Tenn. — It took more than 20 years to find Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel, but investigators now say the answer was in front of them all along.
There’s always that place in town drivers pass without giving it much thought. We see it all the time, so it’s hard to imagine you’ve missed anything.
For as long as most remember in Sparta, that’s all anyone thought about Highway 84. What they missed has been missing for years.
There were always rumors about 18-year-old Foster and 17-year-old Bechtel on April 3, 2000.
Foster was the perfectionist, and Bechtel was the athlete. Two White County High School best friends who cared about each other and their families.
“I called home on Monday night, and my wife told me Erin didn’t come home last night,” said Erin’s father, Cecil Foster.
Cecil told his wife not to worry about their daughter. Erin was 18, after all, and had already talked about moving out.
Then one night turned into another, and that’s when panic sunk in.
“Just a nightmare, man. Just a total nightmare,” Foster said.
Theories were all over the board when White County Sheriff Steve Page joined the case in 2011.
By 2018, Page was elected sheriff.
“We had what we thought were leads in other cases that we explored, but I thought this just doesn’t make sense,” Page said.
At some point, Page said he decided to start over.
He says he gathered all the information he could at the office and asked investigators from the past for their documents.
That’s when Page said he came across one piece of paper that changed everything.
Likely buried underneath years of tips, theories and suspects was the missing person’s report signed by Erin’s family.
“It would have been the very first document to the case,” Page said.
Investigators were fixated on the idea that a party on the county's west end was somehow involved.
Everyone assumed the two friends had left the party on their way home, but the document showed it was the other way around.
“She picked up her younger brother and asked her mother to stay out a little while later than normal. Jeremy Bechtel accompanied her,” Page said.
The two were traveling from Erin’s home and not the party based on the report.
This meant detectives were focused on the wrong end of the county.
So when YouTube investigator and cold case connoisseur Jeremy Sides just happened to take an interest in the case last year, Page knew precisely where to send him.
“I told him I believe they went missing off of Highway 84,” Page said.
Best known for his YouTube channel "Exploring with Nug," the Georgia native used sonar to scan bodies of water.
He crossed off two other lakes for good measure before eventually taking the sheriff’s advice — where he made the discovery of a lifetime.
From his screen, Sides could see what appeared to be a car 13 feet below the surface of the Calf Killer River.
Sides dove in the next day and confirmed this was indeed a Pontiac Grand Am. The same model was driven by Erin Foster the night she went missing.
“Of course, I’m shocked. I’m like, 'Really?' I didn’t believe it until I got there,” Page said.
With a license plate in hand, the sheriff called dispatch to confirm their beliefs.
Both Erin and Jeremy’s remains were found inside the almost entirely intact car.
Page says all indications are they ran off the road.
Page says it took until last year for investigators to realize the guardrail we now see along Highway 84 was not there in 2000.
He says there have been dive teams in the area over the years, but most thought the guardrail would have shown damage had the two teens gone in the water.
So after two decades, it was time to give Cecil Foster the call he’d been waiting on. Cecil called it a numb feeling when he heard the news.
“I don’t think I believed it even though he’s got the license plate in his hand,” Foster said.
Cecil says he’s grateful to the sheriff and all those involved in the recovery but wonders why it took so long to bring his daughter home.
“As different sheriffs came in, you would think that if they were very interested in the case, they would have found that paper because it had to be there,” Foster said.
When we asked Page what he has to say to those who believe investigators in the past dropped the ball, Page said we’re all human.
“We all make mistakes. The best we can do is learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward,” Page said.
As for those who say Page is only trying to gain attention ahead of his upcoming election, Page says he wishes the teens were found sooner.
"Not a political stunt. It’s just me doing my job, and I beat myself up too because I feel I should have found them sooner. God knows if I could have, I would have. I would never put this family through anything like that," Page said.
Page has asked detectives to revisit past cases with a new perspective, including the case of Terry Sullivan, who was killed in 2009.
He knows some things may have been missed over time, but he hopes that departments across the country can learn from this lesson.
Sometimes the answers are much closer to home than we once thought.