Two years after Danniella Vian went missing and more than a year after divers found her body submerged 20 feet below the surface of Bayou Sara, friends and family are still having a hard time wrapping their head around investigators’ theory her death was some kind of tragic accident.
The 25-year-old mother’s case captivated media and people around the country for months after she was first reported missing in 2019, and for many following the case, the discovery of her recently purchased 2014 Chevrolet Cruze in a remote bayou instantly suggested foul play.
When Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste told a gaggle of reporters last May the initial evidence suggested the vehicle wound up there by accident, many didn’t find his words convincing.
One of them was Julie Thomas, who is the mother of Vian’s ex-boyfriend, Tyler, and the grandmother of their daughter, Cora. Even though she isn’t technically a “relative,” Thomas has been involved in Vian’s case since she filed the initial missing persons report that kicked off a year-long search for her.
Thomas is still involved today — working to get answers for Cora, who she is raising with her son. She believes someone out there knows something about what happened to Vian and worries most of the general public believes the case has been formally closed. That doesn’t appear to be the case, though.
“I’ve had random people tell me, ‘I thought that case was closed. I thought the police ruled it an accident,’” Thomas said. “Well, the case is not closed. There are too many things that I know that tell me it wasn’t an accident, and I want pressure put on the people who know something about it.”
Vian’s car was found some 17 miles from where she was last seen on July 17, 2018. It was discovered in an area her family and friends say she wasn’t familiar with and had no reason to be in that night.
According to Thomas, Vian went out that evening to celebrate buying her new car with a friend and some other acquaintances. After visiting some establishments in West Mobile, Vian’s car was captured in surveillance footage leaving a gas station near Government Boulevard and Interstate 65 around 11 p.m.
One of Vian’s friends, Shana Haden, said a group has been putting out signs in certain areas of the city over the last few weeks to bring attention to the case and mark the two-year anniversary of Vian’s disappearance. They read “Unsolved Death: Danniella Vian” and list a number for the Mobile Police Department (MPD).
Like Thomas, Haden said she’s never been given an explanation for why police believe Vian’s death was an accident. Haden said she doesn’t understand why Vian would have suddenly left her friends, stopped for gas and driven 17 miles to a boat ramp on the other side of the county in the middle of the night.
Haden and Thomas both said investigators told them Vian’s car was in park when it was found in Bayou Sara and the ignition was turned to the auxiliary setting. She reportedly wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
“I really think if [the police] truly believed it was an accident, the case would be closed,” Haden said. “They don’t have time to have an open missing persons case just sitting there.”
Friends and family also recently raised concerns about how Vian’s Chevrolet Cruze wound up on a Ukrainian auction website earlier this month. According to Thomas, the family wasn’t notified, though she said the police had likely removed any salvageable evidence shortly after it was recovered.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Battiste said police didn’t actually sell the car, though it had been released from their possession. Because Vian had only made a single payment on the vehicle at the time she disappeared, he said it was eventually turned over to Pearl Motors and Progressive Insurance Company.
Prior to that, Battiste said investigators had gone “bumper to bumper” to recover any possible evidence related to the case. He also confirmed reports police were able to recover the event data recorder, which is sometimes known as a “black box,” from the vehicle and turn it over for digital analysis.
Asked why the case was still considered “open” if police believe Vian’s death was an accident, Battiste said it isn’t uncommon for cases without a “definitive cause of death” to remain open even when police have a strong theory about what may have happened.
“The cause of death was determined to be most likely accidental, but because there’s no definitive answer, it will always remain open,” Battiste said. “If someone could bring forth evidence we would look into it, but because there is somewhat of an undetermined status, it will always be considered somewhat open.”
According to Battiste, details about the area around Bayou Sara and some of the conditions of Vian’s car are what led police to believe her car was driven into the water and she was unable to get out in time.
“Once they found the vehicle, I actually went up there after dark to get an idea of what it would look like driving in the area and I saw how quickly you could find yourself driving off into the water. It’s my understanding that there’s only two or three feet before that boat ramp drops off around 10 feet,” Battiste added. “We believe she might have realized she was in the water, but a lot of the things in the car are electrically powered — things like the door latches immediately became inoperable.”
All of Vian’s personal belongings, including her purse and cash, were left in the vehicle, which Battiste said ruled out any kind of robbery. While there was no indication of any kind of physical trauma, Battiste acknowledged advanced decomposition made detecting some kinds of potential injuries impossible.
Battiste did not offer any explanation for how Vian might have wound up in Bayou Sara that night. However, he did say police are more than willing to investigate any new lead in the case.
“We poured every resource in this case we had available to us as a department,” he said. “If there is anyone who comes forward with new information, we won’t hesitate to look into it.”
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