Photo | Shane Rice
By Jason Johnson and Dale Liesch
A normally quiet neighborhood in Saraland was rocked last week after a police diving team stumbled upon key evidence in one of the Bay area’s most high-profile unsolved cases.
There, submerged beneath more than 20 feet of murky water in Bayou Sara, police found the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 25-year-old Danniella Vian was seen driving almost a year ago on the night she disappeared. Inside was the body of an adult female police say had “been there a while.”
Police haven’t confirmed the body to be Vian’s, but her family and friends seem to be proceeding as if it is — including Julie Thomas.
As the mother of Vian’s ex-boyfriend, Tyler, and the grandmother of Vian’s daughter, Cora, Thomas has been involved in “Danni’s” case since the beginning. It was Thomas who filed a missing-person report with the Mobile Police Department (MPD) after Vian didn’t show up for a visit with Cora.
She told Lagniappe that when detectives from MPD showed up at her work last Thursday, she immediately knew why they were there.
“When I saw detective [Glenn] Barton, I didn’t have to ask. Of course, he said everything had to be verified, but I know it’s Danni,” Thomas said of body found in Vian’s submerged car. “It’s just not an area where she knows anybody or has any reason to be.”
Investigators are waiting on a state autopsy to officially determine whether the remains are Vian’s. There’s been no indication of how long that might take, but MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste has said that, due to the level of decomposition, a DNA test could be required.
If those results prove Thomas right, and Vian’s body was indeed found at the bottom of Bayou Sara, it will mark a tragic end to a missing person’s case that drew national attention to Mobile and the beginning of an investigation to bring her possible killer(s) to justice.
Shanna Haden, a former co-worker of Vian’s, said friends and family never stopped looking for her when she went missing and will continue to seek answers going forward.
“This is now the beginning … we have a starting point, and the truth will come out,” Haden said. “Whoever did this or knows about it can’t hide for long … it’s all catching up to them between the police department and the diligence of her friends and family. We will find out who did this and make sure that Danniella, Cora and her friends and family get justice.”
Something in the water
The discovery of Vian’s car was a significant break in a case that, by all outward appearances, had hit a wall. Before last week, MPD’s last update on Vian’s disappearance was in September.
MPD had offered rewards of up to $5,000 for information on Vian to no avail. Police even created a blog dedicated to discussions about Vian’s case last fall when many of their leads had been exhausted — an endeavor an MPD spokeswoman said wasn’t “particularly fruitful.”
The investigation was turned over to MPD’s homicide unit before there was any evidence of a death at all, and Thomas said the detectives working the case were “dogged” and “meticulous.” Yet, despite their efforts, MPD still hadn’t located Vian’s car 10 months into its investigation.
However, that changed about two weeks ago when a sergeant on MPD’s team of divers was working to mark and map an area of Bayou Sara for future training. About 40 feet out from the public boat launch, he noticed something strange deep in the water and marked the location.
Last Thursday, divers from the Saraland Police Department and MPD returned to the area and were able to determine the make and model of the car while it was still submerged. Working with MPD homicide detectives, police confirmed it was Vian’s missing car.
The next day, police began the delicate and lengthy process of bringing the car and the remains inside of it to the surface while preserving as much potential evidence as possible. With a vehicle that was most likely sitting underwater for nine months, that’s easier said than done.
Police knew, as the car was pulled from the bottom, sediment would distribute and make things murky. So, divers worked to photograph and document as much of the area as possible ahead of time. Battiste said MPD didn’t try to bring the car up the night it was discovered because it could have disturbed evidence that couldn’t be photographed until daylight.
“I will tell you that there’s a lot of skill that goes into being able to go underwater and even see a scene like this. As we go through this kind of recovery process, the ultimate goal is to make sure we preserve as much evidence as we possibly can,” Battiste said. “At some point, if we have to go into a courtroom, we want to make sure we can bring justice and closure to [Vian’s] family.”
Sgt. LaDerrick Dubose, an MPD public information officer, told Lagniappe Bayou Sara is one of the locations where the department’s divers typically train, though it’s unclear at this time how often that training takes place and whether it’s happened since Vian went missing last July.
Police from multiple agencies and other first responders were on the scene as the vehicle was slowly brought to the surface — a process that took several hours. It was nearly delayed even further when one of the balloons used to surface the car malfunctioned, causing it to shift in the water.
However, police were ultimately able to correct the issue and proceed.
In the typically quiet areas surrounding Bayou Sara, it was the kind of commotion that forced neighbors out of their homes to see what was going on. They stood alongside a group of Vian’s friends and a gaggle of reporters — both of whom sat waiting patiently for sporadic updates from Battiste throughout the operation.
Local resident Kayla Steade said the boat launch usually has a lot of traffic, especially during the spring and summer, and seeing it lined off with crime scene tape and packed with police was very different.
“It’s pretty shocking that something like this has happened a minute’s walk from your house,” Steade said. “It’s crazy something like this happened here at all.”
July 17, 2018
Vian’s car was found some 17 miles from where she was last spotted on July 17, 2018. But while the discovery answered some questions, it raised almost as many new ones. Police haven’t released any information on how the car ended up there or named any suspects at this point.
For the most part, July 17 seemed to be a good day for Danniella Vian. She finally bought the car she’d been saving up for, picked up school supplies for Cora and had plans to celebrate with friends that evening. Then, at some point after 11 p.m., something went terribly wrong.
According to MPD, Vian was last seen leaving a Shell gas station on Government Boulevard near Interstate 65 around that time, but investigators have confirmed little else about the case.
Surveillance footage from the gas station caught Vian’s car and another vehicle arriving at 11:05 p.m., and then leaving at or around 11:24 p.m. The week after Vian’s disappearance, that footage was posted online by NBC 15, but was taken down at the request of MPD detectives.
Since then, most of the information about what happened on the night Vian disappeared has come from her family members, friends and others who were with her that night.
According to Thomas, Vian went out that night to celebrate buying her car. She met up with an old friend named Randy Capps, who she hadn’t seen in a while. Thomas said two of Capps’ friends who Vian didn’t know eventually joined the group — one of whom was Denson White.
Facebook messages sent to White seeking input on this report did not receive a response, and according to NBC News, he did not respond to similar requests for an interview from reporters who profiled Vian’s disappearance for an episode of “Dateline” in October 2018.
Capps declined an opportunity to contribute to this report, but did confirm he is a friend of Vian’s and was with her the night she disappeared. At the time, Capps was a bartender at Heroes Sports Bar & Grille’s USA location, which is where Vian, White and another female supposedly met that night.
Thomas said the three of them went to the Dublin Irish Pub & Eatery (now Timothy O’Sullivan’s) to grab drinks until Capps got off work at Heroes and could meet up with them at Ollie’s Mediterranean Grill. At some point along the way, though, Vian lost her cellphone.
In her interview with NBC’s “Dateline,” Thomas said at some point on the way to Ollie’s, White and Vian — who were traveling in separate cars — pulled into the Shell station on Government Boulevard where Vian allegedly told White she thought she’d left her phone at the Dublin.
In the original security footage from the gas station, two cars — one of them Vian’s — are seen arriving at around 11:05 p.m. Both were gone by 11: 24 p.m. It should be said that the video footage made available is grainy and difficult to make out. There has also been some debate about whether it shows a third car arriving after or the first two or whether one of the first cars left the gas station and then quickly returned.
Thomas said White told her the next day he and Vian looked for the phone there before deciding to go back and look at the Dublin. He told the family he last saw Vian get in her car to follow him back to the bar, but at some point, headed in another direction.
Thomas said she received a call from White around 7:30 a.m. the next morning telling her he had found Vian’s phone and wanted to return it to her.
She claims she told him to take it P.F. Chang’s, where Vian worked. According to Thomas, White eventually met her and her husband at the police station that Friday when they filed a missing-person report. It was there, she said, that White returned Vian’s phone.
On again, off again
Thomas said her son, Tyler, and Vian were “always one” when it came to their 5-year-old daughter, Cora, but weren’t always in an exclusive relationship with each other. According to Thomas, some of their issues were exacerbated by Tyler’s personal struggles with drug use.
“They had their problems. My son was an addict,” Thomas said this week. “They both completely loved each other and even when they weren’t together they were friends, but it’s really hard to maintain a good relationship when drugs are involved.”
According Mobile Metro Jail records, Tyler has a handful of previous arrests on drug-related offenses and additional charges for crimes such as burglary and theft. He was actually in custody at Metro Jail on the night Vian disappeared in connection to a third-degree burglary charge.
There have also been issues between Vian and Tyler related to the custody of their daughter. In 2015, Tyler filed a petition for custody that accused Vian of using marijuana around Cora, but the case never moved forward. Thomas said things smoothed over, and the petition was dismissed.
A cousin of Tyler’s, Jason Corey Dykes, 36, was also investigated in connection to Vian’s disappearance last fall. Dykes was arrested Sept. 13 after police searched his residence in the Theodore area near the intersection of Travis and Wigfield roads.
He was charged with two counts of domestic violence and unlawful imprisonment for allegedly keeping a woman in his house for more than three weeks.
Because of the circumstances, investigators looking into Vian’s case assisted, but found no connection.
Thomas also said last week’s discovery has been very difficult for her son.
“Tyler kind of put it out of his mind and didn’t deal with it,” Thomas said. “He’s even told me before, ‘Mom, she’s gone’ — like straight up said ‘she’s dead, or she would have been here — so let’s just stop talking about it and move forward.’ It has really affected him,” she said.
Though he’s been arrested once since Vian went missing, Thomas said the event has been “a wake up call” for Tyler, who’s had to be “mom and dad” for Cora since Vian went missing last summer. According to Thomas, he’s “working to get his life together” and has a new job.
Despite her troubles in the past, things also seemed to be moving in a positive direction for Vian when she went missing. She’d been working at P.F. Chang’s to save for a car and an entry from her diary Thomas released to the media suggested Vian was planning for her future.
On June 17, 2018 — a month before she went missing — Vian wrote that, after getting a car, she wanted to get Cora’s bedroom together, start paying off debt and go back to school. She also set a personal goal to have Cora start staying with her “80 percent of the time.”
In the corner of the page, Vian had also written: “We need to see the world as it could be, not what it is.”
While it wasn’t the outcome that anybody was hoping for, Thomas believes last week’s discovery will give police what they need to find out what happened to Vian last July. While she wants justice for her granddaughter’s mother, Thomas also said she plans to let police do their jobs and will take a less active role in finding potential perpetrator(s) than she did searching for Vian.
“This is not my job now that she’s been found, but I know they have this,” Thomas told Lagniappe. “It’s out of my hands, but I’m very confident they’re going to do whatever they have to do to find who did this. She’s not just another number to them.”
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