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Search for Naya Rivera becomes a recovery effort after actress presumed drowned

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Actress Naya Rivera is presumed to have drowned as authorities continue to look for her body in the waters of Lake Piru after she went missing Wednesday afternoon.

The 33-year-old was reported missing after her 4-year-old son was found in a rental boat by himself. While authorities focused Wednesday’s search efforts along the shoreline, hopeful she had made it out of the lake, Thursday became a recovery effort in the dark, murky waters of Lake Piru. Officials said the search of the lake could take up to a week.

“Our hearts and our prayers and thoughts go out to the Rivera family,” said Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue at a Thursday news conference. “This is a terrible tragedy.... We’re going to do everything we can to find her.”

Ventura County Sheriff’s Department officials released video footage Thursday afternoon showing Rivera and her son boarding the rental boat alone, as well as a recording of the 911 call made by marine personnel reporting the “Glee” actress missing.

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Rivera parked near Condor Point and exited the vehicle, the video shows, walking around to the passenger side to lift her son out of the car. Wearing shorts and a baseball cap, she opened her trunk, swung a bag over her shoulder and walked toward the boat ramp. Rivera looked over her shoulder, watching her little boy as he trailed steps behind her, his own bag in tow.

The mother and son were guided by staff to their rental boat, and at about 1 p.m. they departed onto the lake. The boat soon became a spot on the lake’s horizon.

Hours later, the staff noticed she didn’t return her boat on time and went out to search for her. At 4:47 p.m., a woman told 911 dispatchers, “We have a missing person. We found a little girl in one of the boats by herself and her mom is nowhere to be found.”

Sheriff’s officials later learned that Rivera and her son were swimming together in the lake. The boy was able to get back on the boat, but his mother did not. He was found sleeping on the boat by himself, wearing his life vest. After speaking with the boy, deputies determined he was the last to see his mother, but couldn’t determine whether he saw her go underwater.

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“He’s in good health,” Capt. Eric Bushow said of Rivera’s son Wednesday evening.“The family is going through a very traumatic time right now.”

Search teams raced to scour the lake Thursday before nightfall, when winds and lack of light would complicate their undertaking. The search effort includes 100 personnel, including 25 divers, two helicopters and six pontoon boats, said Ventura County Deputy Chris Dyer.

At a Thursday afternoon briefing, Dyer said Lake Piru isn’t more dangerous than other lakes, but can be deep in some areas and has tall underwater vegetation that could entangle swimmers.

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“If the body is tangled in something beneath the water it may never come back up,” Donoghue said. The “underwater trees” combined with cold weather and poor visibility could lead to danger.

“There’s really no strong undercurrents like you would have in the ocean, but sometimes the water can be very cold and the hypothermic elements of being in cold water could effect something,” Donoghue said.

Lake Piru will remain closed while authorities search for Rivera. The search has so far been focused on the north side of the lake, where the boy was found, Dyer said.

After a long day of beaming onto search personnel, the sun began to lose strength around 5 p.m. The search would continue, however, for a few more hours, said Ventura County Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Miguel Gonzalez.

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“As soon as darkness hits, we’re going to have to halt the physical search,” he said.

Overnight, recovery teams were planning to reassess their resources and where Friday’s search will be focused.

“Right now, it’s been 24 hours, so we’re not thinking she made it to shore,” Gonzalez said. “We’re concentrating underwater.”

Waves lapped the marina’s cement shores Thursday evening. Dyer said the lake’s conditions typically get worse as the wind picks up. The gusts don’t affect divers underwater, he said, but they could make recovery operations more difficult for dive team boats.

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“You can tell the water’s getting choppier,” Dyer said, describing the lake as unpredictable. “She could be anywhere.”

Searchers on Thursday look for "Glee" actress Naya Rivera, who is believed to have drowned in Lake Piru.
(KTLA-TV Channel 5)

Lake Piru is a popular recreation area in the Los Padres National Forest near Fillmore. There have been drownings at the lake in the past.

A Times article in 2000 chronicled a string of drownings at the reservoir, saying most victims were inexperienced swimmers who were not wearing life jackets and overestimated their own abilities or swam in prohibited areas.

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At the time, officials said the drowning numbers were no higher than at other lakes in the region. Ventura County sheriff’s officials said no one has drowned in the lake in the past year.

Rivera is best known for her role as Santana in Fox’s “Glee.” The Santa Clarita native gained praise for her performance as a gay cheerleader in the high school musical drama.

“I didn’t think it was going to go this far,” Rivera said in 2011 of her role as a lesbian character on TV. “But I’m glad that it did, because there have been a lot of fans who have expressed that they’ve been going through similar situations in their lives. I’ve heard from girls that are in high school, they’re 16, 17, and they’re like, ‘I came out to my mom,’ or ‘I came out to my friends, and thank you for helping me do that.’”

She had been acting since she was 4 years old, appearing in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters” and “The Bernie Mac Show.” She married her ex-husband, actor Ryan Dorsey, in 2014 and they had their son a year later.

Earlier in the week, Rivera had posted a photo with her son with the caption: “Just the two of us.”

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