Three years after discovery, mysterious car pulled from Mississippi River at Marquette

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A car recovered from the west channel of the Mississippi River near the Marquette city boat ramp on Oct. 14 contained no suspicious items, according to the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, which led the effort with the Mar-Mac Police Department. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Discovered by fishermen three years ago, the vehicle turned out to be a 1985 Lincoln Town Car last registered in 2007 through Wisconsin. Earlier this week, the police department in Muscoda, Wis., reported the vehicle was stolen from the 100 block of South Ohio Street in the village of Muscoda on or about Sept. 19, 2006.

The Delhi Fire Department Dive Team located the vehicle and hooked it up to a wrecker from Tegeler Wrecker and Crane of Dyersville, which then slowly pulled it from the muck on the Mississippi River bottom. Diver Keith Pitts said, luckily, the car was close to shore—15 feet off the corner of the gas dock (pictured here). The river depth was around 16 feet at that point, and divers relied on a communications line and referenced sonar images to traverse the pitch black water.

Pulling the car from the muck of the Mississippi River bottom took time. A Tegeler employee said removing a freshly submerged vehicle is fairly easy, but one that’s been under water for awhile—covered and filled with sediment deposited by changing water levels and conditions—is difficult.

It was over two hours before the car was pulled from the river and onto the boat ramp under the bridge.

Volunteers from McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 went to work immediately, prying open the car doors and trunk, then shoveling out gobs of mud, so the sheriff’s office could inspect the interior.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

A car recovered from the west channel of the Mississippi River near the Marquette city boat ramp on Oct. 14 contained no suspicious items, according to the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, which led the effort with the Mar-Mac Police Department.

The vehicle was first discovered by fishermen in 2017 and initially examined by the La Crosse County, Wis., dive unit in November of that year. But river conditions prevented the car from being removed until now, said Sgt. Brent Ostrander, investigator with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.

“The water level finally stabilized—it’s clear and low,” he said. “Boat traffic is also down right now.”

In the three years since the vehicle was found, theories on how it got there have run rampant. Sonar images revealed the car was an older model sedan, leading some to estimate it had been submerged in the Mississippi for 30 to 40 years.

Ostrander said the sheriff’s office has previously handled the immediate rescue and recovery of vehicles in the river. In fact, a Chevy Silverado and attached boat and trailer was pulled from the water at the Marquette boat ramp just two months ago. 

“But nothing has been this mysterious,” he acknowledged. “No one local has ever said, ‘This is the reason the car was there.’”

When news of the discovery broke in 2017, the sheriff’s office fielded a lot of calls about it. Some people even wondered if the car could have belonged to a long-missing relative, Ostrander said. “So we knew we had to get some answers.”

The recovery effort started just before 2 p.m. on Oct. 14. Ostrander had coordinated with the Delhi Fire Department Dive Team to locate the vehicle and hook it up to a wrecker from Tegeler Wrecker and Crane of Dyersville, which would then pull it from the water. Tegeler had helped remove the Chevy truck from the river in August and was the only local service with the necessary equipment, noted Ostrander.

Diver Keith Pitts said the Delhi Dive Team is certified by Dive Rescue International to perform dive rescues and evidence recovery. 

“This is what we’re trained to do,” he explained. “We go down on a communications line because it’s all pitch black in the water—we can’t see anything. We went down by feel, located the car, did a walk around the car for the sheriff’s office so they could have evidence and then cleared the front fender so we could get a cable around it.”

“The search patterns, the things we do, are all standard. This was a little bigger than a person,” Pitts quipped.

Luckily, the car was close to shore— 15 feet off the corner of the gas dock. 

“That made it a little bit easier,” said Pitts.

The dive team also knew the river depth was around 16 feet at that point, and had referenced sonar images provided by the sheriff’s office.

Pulling the car from the muck of the Mississippi River bottom took time. A Tegeler employee said removing a freshly submerged vehicle is fairly easy, but one that’s been under water for awhile—covered and filled with sediment deposited by changing water levels and conditions—is difficult.

It was over two hours before the car was pulled from the river and onto the boat ramp under the bridge, revealing a yellow 1985 Lincoln Town Car. Volunteers from McGregor Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1 went to work on the car immediately, prying open the doors and trunk, then shoveling out gobs of mud, so the sheriff’s office could inspect the interior.

Scene investigation located no suspicious items, but the sheriff’s office was able to pull a license plate. Although the Lincoln was 35 years old, the car hasn’t been in the river that long—it was last registered in 2007 through Wisconsin. The identity of the owner was not released.

Earlier this week, the police department in Muscoda, Wis., reported the vehicle was actually stolen from the 100 block of South Ohio Street in the village of Muscoda on or about Sept. 19, 2006.

The investigation remains open in an effort to determine how the vehicle made it into the river. Anyone with information about the theft is asked to contact the Muscoda Police Department at (608) 739-3144.

Ostrander said the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office is appreciative of the services that assisted in the recovery effort. Tegeler and the Delhi Dive Team used the operation as a training exercise, donating their time and resources.

“So there was no cost,” he said.

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