WACO, Texas — We've all heard of the statement "a purpose driven life," they even wrote a book about it but what, if anything, does it mean?
Like most things in life, you can argue that one's purpose comes when it's least expected.
Jared Leisek, the founder of Adventures with Purpose, an underwater search and rescue team based out of Bend, Oregon, has found that that purpose began when he decided to have some fun with a hobby in the Pacific Northwest.
"It started about three years ago when I wanted to get in the water and show things that are out of sight, out of mind," Leisek told 6 News during breakfast at The Olive Branch in Waco.
Leisek said he started recording his adventures as he located pop cans, cellphones and sunglasses. It was a chance to clean up the environment and find things that others had lost with the hope of returning them.
In one video posted to his YouTube channel of the same name, Leisek found a wallet with $150 dollars inside and was able to return the billfold and cash to the rightful owner.
After nine months of cleaning up the environment and returning as much lost property as he could, Leisek said he located, by accident his first submerged vehicle in Portland, that looked to have been swallowed by the sea years earlier.
"We went in to recover that car, it was 40 feet deep, and it really was a challenge for me," he explained. "When we went in for that car.... we accidentally found two more cars, we went in for those cars and found three more."
The Adventures with Purpose team looked at each other and decided, if they are finding these vehicles by accident, maybe they should start looking for them intentionally.
Leisek said they invested in sonar and decided they would troll the tops of bodies of water, searching for vehicles, and began posting more of their adventures on YouTube in hopes of gaining followers and pushing themselves further as a dive team.
Little did they know, the world was, in fact, more than watching.
"A family reached out to us from Warrenton, Missouri and told us, we see what you've been posting on YouTube, we see that you're recovering these cars and we have a lost loved one that we believe is underwater," Leisek explained.
Leisek said they talked it over as a team and decided they couldn't make the trip halfway across the country to help a family in need. That initial trip, to help a family locate Nathan Ashby, would be the very beginning of a newfound purpose Leisek and his team never could have imagined.
"At that time, it was kind of a one-off, it was a, yes, a family asked us to help and we did it. It was a great feeling," Leisek said.
That was in December of 2019 and a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown that would change the direction of Adventures with Purpose, its mission and the scope of dives in the weeks and months ahead.
"A bunch of us came together, as divers, after that 30-day lockdown was done and we got in the water in Portland for a challenging 80-foot dive, we knew there was a vehicle down there, let's make it our deepest recovery yet," he said. "When we brought it to the surface and pulling it out, we had an accidental find."
That dive, conducted on May 6, 2020, turned from a simple recovery of a silver Mazda 6 into a death investigation after the body of Timothy Robinson, missing for 12-years, was pulled from the Willamette River at the Jefferson Boat Ramp in Milwaukie, Oregon.
"It was at the time that we said, what if we start listening to our viewers that have been reaching out after watching the previous episode telling us about other people across the United States that are missing," Leisek explained.
What started in 2019 as a fun underwater adventure series to clean the environment with the hope of returning long lost goods to their owners had now become a purpose of solving missing person cold cases and bringing healing to families long torn apart by the unknown.
"We decided to take a fall road trip from September to October of 2020 and on that trip we were able to bring two more lost loved ones home," Leisek said and called the feeling of doing so, incredible. "I don't want to say that it's a superhero feeling but you're filling a niche, a crack in the system, in the universe, that you never knew existed."
Douglas Bishop, who met Leisek through the towing industry some years back in the Pacific Northwest, said he was called into help recover a car underwater in Portland.
"I was operating Elite Towing when Jared called me and asked me if I would volunteer my services in helping him recover this car underwater and I said I would," Bishop told 6 News.
"In the City of Portland, one car turned into more than 25 cars and we started running into human remains in the vehicles and in finding these cars, we self-taught ourselves how to read sonar and we realize, after solving many of these cases, we can read sonar better than some of these law enforcement agencies."
Leisek believes that all law enforcement agencies are doing everything they can to close cold cases and help find the love ones of families desperate for answers. It comes down to technology and less red tape to go through.
"A lot of times law enforcement can only work off of clues that they might receive but if they don't have somebody within their county, their state, that has the proper training," he explained. "You have to remember that we have zero red tape and as long as it's a public body of water or if it's private and we get permission, we can get in anything we want on a moment's notice."
It was in one of those moments, on a cold and dreary day on the other side of mid-January of this year, hope arrived in the heart of Central Texas for Bianca Torres. Bianca and her family had been searching and wondering whatever happened to their matriarch, Stephanie Torres, who vanished in December of 2017.
"On Wednesday night she took off and never came back," Bianca said of her mother at the time. "Now that she's not here, it just feels weird without her. She's never done anything like this and it's pretty scary."
Leisek said his team was tipped off about Stephanie by one of their YouTube subscribers in Central Texas, but it wasn't Bianca or anyone in her family.
"One of our viewers asked if we had heard of this case in Waco and so I reached out to Bianca, her daughter, and I said we're an organization and we look for loved ones underwater when a family has not had a resolution and answers to what happened to their loved one, Leisek said. "I asked her if it was okay if we come look for your mother, and she told us she knew about us and heard about us."
Leisek said he asked Bianca why she didn't reach out to him first and she told him that she didn't think anybody cared about her mother, Stephanie.
With Bianca's permission, Adventures with Purpose arrived in Waco and began their search for Stephanie on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. The search, which took place at the East Boat Launch of the Brazos Valley, ended in less than an hour when they found Stephanie still inside her 2006 blue Kia.
"It's definitely her car, the same discoloration, peeling and paint on the front hood. From what I saw and was able to get up there and see, it's a positive identification for me," Bishop is seen and heard saying in the produced documentary.
The emotions are raw and very real as Leisek delivered the news to the Torres family, waiting on the banks nearby as the car was pulled from the Brazos River.
"So, we do have confirmation that there are human remains inside the vehicle," Leisek said as he walked up the bank to Bianca. "Is there any information that I can help you with at this time? Your family just needs time and is there anything else I can do for you?"
Bianca, in the depth of her grief, can barely be heard telling Leisek "no," words that seemed hard to come by.
What began as an adventure on the other side of what's familiar has now become the only hope for families left behind.
"I can't even begin to relate to the type of torture that would be. The day-to-day and having to live your life not knowing," Douglas said, just hours after being the diver to locate Torres.
Leisek said one thing he's learned in the few years he's done this, closure doesn't exist.
"A lot of mothers have reached out to us who have lost a sibling, their child or a husband and they said 'Jared, it's never closure, and we want people to know that,'" Leisek explained. "They tell me we are just giving them answers they have never had before, whether we find them or don't. If we don't find them, then they have answers as to where they no longer have to look."
Leisek said it's his responsibility to look every family in the eye and assure them that no one will come behind him and find what he couldn't.
"It's the answers, rather than the closure because you're never closing anything," Leisek emphasized, speaking with his hands to make his point. "It's just giving the ability to allow people to move forward and maybe now you can begin the healing process of laying them to rest."
Bishop, who also helped find Samantha Hopper and her babies and had been missing for 23 years, said nothing else matters than doing this for the rest of his life.
"This is a purpose. I can be into anything else and making a lot of money but I couldn't imagine, even if I was making millions, I'm not going to have the purpose that this provides," he said.
To date, Adventures with Purpose has helped close 19 missing person cold cases across the country. Leisek said they do it all for free and rely only on donations, apparel sales, and YouTube clicks, likes and shares.
"We cry side-by-side with these families but it's coming back to giving them something that nobody else has been able to do, that's hard to explain," he said.