Crime and Justice

Truck belonging to Donald Messier — missing since ’06 — found in the Winooski River

Diver Nick Rinn with the Adventures With Purpose search team holds up the rear license plate pulled from what is believed to be Donald Messier’s Ford F-150 pickup truck. Photo by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout

This article by Lisa Scagliotti was first published in the Waterbury Roundabout on Oct. 5.

Nearly 16 years after the disappearance of Donald Messier, a dive team specializing in cracking missing person cases has found what they believe to be Messier’s truck submerged in 10 feet of water in the Winooski River in Duxbury.

It’s unclear whether the truck contains any human remains and members of the Adventures With Purpose search team notified Vermont State Police of their discovery on Wednesday. By afternoon, multiple personnel from the state police were on the site near the Duxbury Community Garden planning logistics to remove the vehicle from the river and up a steep bank.

Detective Amber Keener explained that the challenge would be to preserve the vehicle while removing it from its resting place. Members of the state police dive team were called to assess the site before any recovery began. It was unclear if there would be time to accomplish the task on Wednesday before nightfall.

The Adventures With Purpose team arrived in Waterbury on Monday night with two days to spend searching the area more thoroughly than they were able to do when they visited for part of the day on Oct. 2, 2021.

A team from Adventures With Purpose sets out on the Waterbury Reservoir at Little River State Park on Oct. 2, 2021. File photo by Gordon Miller

Messier disappeared in 2006 after leaving a party in Waitsfield in the early morning hours of Oct. 15. No trace of the 34-year-old Waterbury man or his red 1997 Ford 150 pickup were ever found despite extensive searches in the area in the days and months afterward and in subsequent years such as after Tropical Storm Irene and as recent as last fall.

The Vermont State Police lists Messier among active missing person cases, and family, friends and community members have speculated for years about what fate had befallen him.

His younger sister Amy Messier Currier and her husband Stephen, her parents, and her four children have held out hope that eventually her brother would be found or that someone would come forward with information to solve the mystery of what had happened to him.

Last year marked 15 years since his disappearance. Local news coverage sparked renewed interest in the case but investigators have not had any news of hopeful tips.

This week’s search and discovery comes a week after Messier’s birthday. On Sept. 27, he would have turned 50, his sister said.

Donald Messier in 2003. Courtesy photo

The truck was located Tuesday in a deep pool of the Winooski River near River Road in Duxbury.

Searchers returned this morning to positively identify the submerged vehicle. They did so just before 11 a.m., emerging from the water with the rear license plate.

Divers reported that the vehicle was mostly intact, although its roof and hood were missing. The interior had accumulated much silt, gravel and river debris including fishing lines. The searchers were unable to determine if any human remains were present.

Family members and friends arrived over the course of the afternoon to observe the site and crews preparing for the next steps.

Many expressed surprise that the pickup was found so close to town and in a spot in the river that’s popular with anglers, paddlers, hikers and swimmers.

“I’m without words,” State Police Detective Matthew Nadeau said. “We’ve been through the wringer on this case, and I’ve only been working it for a year.”

Bill McIntosh, a volunteer investigator worked with the Adventures With Purpose team Tuesday and Wednesday. Formerly of Vermont, McIntosh works with Norwich University training Navy Seal candidates. A Norwich graduate himself, his familiarity with the region led him to help brainstorm locations in the area to search. The team’s first stop was Blueberry Lake in Warren followed by several other ponds heading closer to Waterbury before they headed to the Winooski River.

Dive team spokesman Nick Rinn said that the team put their boat into the water near the bike trail parking lot near the Ice Center and headed downstream. Sonar detected an image near a bend in the river and a deep pool near a popular fishing access and the community gardens.

A single diver went in to get a closer look and was able to confirm the red Ford pickup but was he was unable to reach a license plate to match with Messier’s plate. On Wednesday morning, shortly after 10 a.m., Rinn and another partner diver returned to the site and they were able to clear silt and gravel away to find the rear plate.

At 10:47 a.m., they surfaced, plate in hand with the lettering: BGG 890. “Found it,” team leader Jared Leisek said from the riverbank.

Adventures With Purpose is based in Oregon where it began as a diving operation with the mission of environmental cleanup, finding and retrieving vehicles in bodies of water. Their skills soon were called upon to search for missing persons thought to be submerged in vehicles. 

They document their searches with detailed videos that are posted online on YouTube and Facebook. Merchandise sales and donations fund their operation — they do not bill law enforcement or charge families whose loved ones they search for. 

Until this summer, the team worked primarily on cold cases. In August, however, they successfully worked a high-profile case in Truckee, California, where a 16-year-old girl went missing on Aug. 6. The team located her body in her car on Aug. 21, making Kiely Rodni the 24th individual they have located since 2019. That case remains under investigation to determine whether foul play was involved.  

The group has two teams traveling the U.S. currently and a list of dozens of cases to investigate.

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