BATTLE CREEK, MICH. - Battle Creek police were looking for clues Wednesday in a car pulled last weekend from the Kalamazoo River during the missing person search for the driver.
Sgt. Brett Weiss and Corp. Andrew Olsen of the department's Crime Lab inspected the car, which was found Sunday, more than a week after it and Cortez Lewis, the man believed to be driving it, disappeared.
Weiss said he and Olsen and Detective Jeff Coons searched the car and were looking at a small hole in the rear bumper, a cut in a back seat headrest and damage to the front windshield. They said they had not reached any conclusions or found any significant evidence.
The rear window of the car was broken and missing but police said that could have been damaged in the crash, from the pressure of the water while it was in the river or by a rock or other debris that may have hit the car while it was submerged.
The case began for police at 4:44 a.m. March 4 after an Athens man said a small sedan cut him off near Dickman Road and Riverside Drive and then passed him westbound at high speed before driving off the north side of the road and disappearing into the concrete channel of the river near Capital Avenue.
Police and Battle Creek firefighters began a search, including watching the river as it flowed under several downtown bridges, but they were not certain about a crash until daylight, when they inspected the scene and also obtained video from the former Ralston plant, now Treehouse Foods, at 150 S. McCamly St. The video showed a car floating downstream with its lights still illuminated.
The search continued for days with divers, boats, underwater cameras, helicopters and a single-engine airplane used to look between the crash site and Morrow Pond in Galesburg. The search was hampered by high water and a swift current and some days with sub-freezing temperatures. Several fire and police departments including dive teams from Calhoun, Van Buren and Allegan counties searched for the car.
Officials had suspended the search late last week, but on Sunday a fisherman saw a corner of the car in the river near the convergence of the Kalamazoo with the Battle Creek River. The car was pulled from the water Sunday evening and taken to the Battle Creek Police Department so it could dry enough for a forensic search.
As it was retrieved Sunday, several family members stood on the shore with officials and learned the body of Lewis, 31, was not in the car.
Police said Lewis' cell phone last sent a signal at the time and location of the crash on March 4 and Battle Creek Police Detective Sgt. Troy Gilleylen said Wednesday Lewis' family has not reported any contact since that night.
Gilleylen said the case is for a missing person because there is no evidence thus far of criminal acts.
"We are examining the vehicle," Gilleylen said. "It is still wide open on what could have happened."
He said detectives have had a few Silent Observer tips including "that the car would be riddled with bullet holes, and that is not the fact." Gilleylen said reports that the car was being chased also have not been proved.
Detectives are continuing to check any tips received, Gilleylen said.
He said police have not dismissed anything, including that Lewis was able to escape from the car, but said it's most likely that he died and his body is somewhere in the river.
Maj. Jim Grafton said a search for Lewis could resume once it's safe for divers to enter the water. Levels have dropped since the crash but Grafton said they could rise again with spring rains.
"We will continue to search for the body when we can get divers in, when it is safe to do so," Grafton said, "and when that is is when Mother Nature allows us to do so. We are depending on Mother Nature for us to get divers down there safely to search for the body."
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Contact Trace Christenson at 269-966-0685 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @TSChristenson
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