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Search for Naya Rivera, presumed drowned in Lake Piru, enters third day

Actress Naya Rivera went missing on Lake Piru on Wednesday afternoon.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Authorities descended on the waters of Lake Piru just after sunrise Friday as the search for the body of actress Naya Rivera, who authorities say likely drowned while boating with her young son, stretches into a third day.

The 33-year-old was reported missing Wednesday afternoon after her 4-year-old son was found in a rental boat by himself. While authorities focused their initial search 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.

Search teams raced to scour the lake Thursday before nightfall, when winds and lack of light would have complicated their undertaking. On Friday morning, search teams from Ventura, Los Angeles and Tulare counties continued to use sonar to scan the bottom of the lake where visibility in the best of conditions is only about 2-feet, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Eric Buschow.

“They’re scanning the bottom of the lake for something that would indicate the shape of a body,” Buschow said. “When they find something then they send divers down to verify.”

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Authorities’ efforts have been focused on the north side of the lake, where the boy was found. But officials are also considering the boat may have drifted for a time across the roughly 2-mile long lake before it was located.

About 40 personnel were assisting in the search early in the day, but that number is expected to grow by the afternoon. Officials said the search of the lake could take up to a week.

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

Video footage released by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office showed the actress and her son boarding the rental boat alone Wednesday afternoon.

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Rivera parked near Condor Point and got out of her car, the video shows, walking around to the passenger side to lift her son out. 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 about 1 p.m., they departed onto the lake. The pontoon boat soon became a spot on the lake’s horizon.

Hours later, the staff noticed she hadn’t returned 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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Lake Piru is a popular recreation area in the Los Padres National Forest near Fillmore. 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.

At the time, officials said the drowning numbers were no higher than at other lakes in the region. No one has drowned in the lake since 2010, according to sheriff’s officials.

While Lake Piru isn’t more dangerous than other lakes, windy conditions on Wednesday afternoon might have made it more challenging for Rivera to hoist herself back onto the pontoon boat, which sits high on the water, after swimming with her son. There’s also a chance the choppy waters may have jostled the boat, causing it to knock her unconscious, Buschow said.

Officials said the water, which can be up to 130 feet deep, has tall underwater vegetation that could entangle swimmers.

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“All indicators are this was a tragic accident,” Buschow said.


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