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Naya Rivera dead at 33: Officials confirm body recovered from Lake Piru is 'Glee' star

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·7 min read
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Naya Rivera’s body has been recovered at Lake Piru, five days after the former Glee star went missing and was presumed dead. The 33-year-old actress didn't return from a swimming excursion with her 4-year-old son, Josey Dorsey, on Wednesday, July 8. Investigators believe she drowned in what appears to be a “tragic accident.” However, the cause of death is still unknown.

During a press conference on Monday afternoon, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said he is “confident” the body found is Rivera’s.

“Based on the location where the body was found, physical characteristics of the body, clothing found on the body and the physical condition of the body, as well as the absence of any other persons reported missing in the area, we are confident that the body we found is that of Naya Rivera,” he said.

The body was found floating in the northeastern part of the lake near the surface of the water at 9:10 a.m. PT on Monday near where Rivera disappeared. The area had been searched extensively by divers using sonar technology, but the search and recovery mission was hampered by difficult conditions.

“We believe she was concealed within some of the shrubbery on the floor bed of the lake,” Ayub explained. “The body looked as though it had been in the water for several days.”

It’s possible Rivera’s last act was saving the life of her son.

Ayub said the boy told investigators they were swimming and his mother helped boost him onto the boat. When he looked back she was gone. The sheriff noted there are currents in Lake Piru, particularly in the afternoon, which is the time of day when she disappeared. Because the boat wasn’t anchored, it is possible that she “mustered enough energy to get her son back onto the boat, but not enough to save herself.”

An autopsy will be performed and dental records are expected to confirm the match.

Ayub said Rivera’s family members visited the lake every day since her disappearance. On Monday, they were joined by some of the Glee cast.

On July 8, Rivera rented a pontoon boat at Lake Piru at 1 p.m. PT, according to investigators, and her son was discovered sleeping alone on the boat unharmed shortly after 4 p.m. The boy told investigators he and his mother went swimming in the lake, but that she did not get back on the boat. Rivera’s son was found wearing a life vest, but it’s not believed that she was wearing one as a second life vest was found inside the boat.

Ventura County Sheriff’s Captain Eric Buschow said during a press conference last week they had enough information to conclude “that she never made it out of the water.” He also ruled out foul play.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department boat
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department boat on Lake Piru conducting a search for Rivera on Friday. (AFP via Getty Images)

“We are confident, based on the circumstances, she was not a victim of foul play. There is no indication of this being an abduction or a homicide,” he told E! News. “There is also nothing to indicate it was a suicide either.”

Buschow said that Rivera’s son was extremely helpful to investigators.

“Kids that age, they are going to be very matter of fact in providing information. And he was. He was able to provide information that was very helpful to investigators,” he added.

Rivera sent a relative a photo of her son in front of a cove before she disappeared, Robert Inglis of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office told Us Weekly.

“There was a picture sent to a family member that showed the boy on the boat by a cove,” Inglis said on Sunday. “We found where that cove was.”

The picture was taken 90 minutes to two hours before the boy was found alone on the boat. It’s not immediately clear if the photo helped divers locate her body.

Search teams were scouring the northern part of the lake as video surveillance showed the boat never went on the south side of the lake. The pontoon boat was found floating in an area estimated to be 30 feet deep with 15 feet visibility in the northern part of the lake, an area with lots of underwater trees that can cause entanglements.

Investigators said Rivera had previously boated on Lake Piru, which is about an hour outside of Los Angeles. Thousands have signed a petition calling for warning signs at the lake. According to sheriff’s officials, the last drowning there was in 2010.

Buschow said during a press conference on Thursday that there are “no strong undercurrents like you have in the ocean,” but noted the water can be very cold “and the hypothermic elements of being in cold water could affect something.” However, he didn’t say whether that was a factor in her likely drowning and noted that an investigation is ongoing.

Rivera leaves behind her son, whom she shared with her ex-husband, actor Ryan Dorsey. The two wed in 2014 and she gave birth the following year. They finalized their divorce in 2018. He has not publicly commented on the tragedy. The actress’s last social media post was a picture of her with her boy.

Rivera landed her first major role at age 5 as Hillary on Eddie Murphy-produced sitcom The Royal Family. She went on to appear in shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters and Baywatch, but it was Glee that truly launched her career. Rivera played sharp-tongued cheerleader, Santana Lopez, during the show’s six-season run. Most recently, she starred in the YouTube Originals drama series Step Up: High Water.

Since her disappearance, Rivera has been praised on social media for her portrayal of Santana Lopez and how important the role was in the LGBTQ community, particularly among young lesbians.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d actually be playing a teen lesbian,” Rivera told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “I didn’t think it was going to go this far. 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.’”

After Glee ended in 2015, Rivera added the role of author to her résumé. In 2016, she published a tell-all memoir Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up! where she really did tell all, including about her relationships with co-star Mark Salling and rapper Big Sean. While promoting the book, she often spoke about her son and motherhood.

“I hope to instill good morals and values in him,” she told Mini Magazine in 2016. “I want to teach him to be confident but kind, strong but not proud, and to always be in love with life.”

Rivera added that her love for her boy is “a love never found anywhere or with anyone else.” She said she hopes he will learn lessons from her book one day: “I hope he would take away that growing up has its challenges, but behind every cloud is a silver lining.”

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