Missing girl found in East Fork White River

The uncle of 2-year-old Emma Sweet tearfully thanked the first responders and the community after the toddler’s body was found at about 11 a.m. Sunday in the East Fork White River after a three-day search involving airboats, divers and firefighters who walked the riverbanks.

The girl’s body was found about 2 ½ miles downstream from where her father Jeremy Sweet’s truck was discovered by duck hunters at 6 a.m. Friday submerged in the river, and about a 1/2 mile downstream from where Emma’s jacket was found by citizens searching the riverbank on Saturday.

The girl’s uncle, Bryan O’Neal, expressed appreciation for all the agencies and dozens of first responders from state and local agencies who worked together Friday, Saturday and Sunday to find his niece “to bring her home.” O’Neal said the family was grateful for the outpouring of love and support received from the community.

Speaking through tears, he specifically thanked the divers (from the DNR and Indiana State Police) for their searching.

“We got her home,” he said, before leaving the podium.

Investigators said a firefighter walking the riverbank saw Emma in the water Sunday morning and called for the divers. The girl’s body was found caught in an underwater debris field, but visible from the surface, said Indiana Department of Natural Resources Capt. Jet Quillen.

Sonar was used to map the scene for evidence purposes before Indiana State Police divers Blake Litmer, of the Versailles post, and Taylor Lowry, of the Bloomington post, recovered the girl’s body. Both divers attended a Sunday press conference but declined to speak to reporters.

An airboat was used to transport Emma to the Water Street boat ramp in downtown Columbus, and she was then taken to Columbus Regional Hospital where a full forensic autopsy is planned this afternoon, said Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting.

Emma’s father, Jeremy Sweet, 39, remains in critical condition at the hospital suffering from hypothermia and frostbite, Sheriff Matt Myers said Sunday.

The press conference marked the end of one aspect of the investigation, finding Emma who had been missing since noon Wednesday, and the continuation of a criminal investigation into her father’s actions prior to the truck being found in the river. Myers said the sheriff’s department is requesting a search warrant for Sweet’s truck, which was pulled from the river by crane on Saturday, and also a search warrant for Sweet’s blood work at the hospital to determine if he was under the influence of drugs when he was found Friday by the hunters.

The sheriff’s department has requested a 72-hour-hold on Sweet while he is hospitalized as the investigation continues.

Myers said the two were last seen about noon Wednesday in Sweet’s black Ford F-150 pickup which was found in the river in 3- to 5-feet of water Friday morning. Family members reported them missing on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day.

Myers recapped what is known so far, saying sheriff deputies were called out to the 1700 block of Blessing Road off of Beatty lane at 6 a.m. Friday after the duck hunters saw the truck in the river and got Sweet to shore. Sweet was found shirtless and semi-conscious in the truck in the freezing Friday morning temperatures.

Investigators believe he drove the truck straight off a 15- to 20-foot embankment west of Beatty Lane into the river. They believe he was familiar with the area and drove “off-road” there frequently although they have no idea why he would drive over the embankment.

Conditions in the river were normal as far as water levels — not flood stage, Quillen said. The stretch of river in question has numerous debris piles of tree limbs underwater and in various locations, the water can stretch to a depth of 11- to 12-feet, which is common for the East Fork White River and known as one of its dangers.

Initially, Sweet gave two stories to investigators, the first being that he had dropped Emma off at “Casey’s,” possibly a reference to a convenience store nearby on Gladstone Avenue, and a second story that he had placed Emma on the hood of the truck because she was wet, and took her coat off, and then she was swept away by the current of the river.

On Saturday, Sweet gave investigators a third version of the story, telling them Emma was in the truck with him when it went into the river, Myers said. He told investigators he had placed her on the hood of the truck and then fallen asleep and when he woke up, she wasn’t there.

Hospital officials told investigators a syringe was found on Sweet when he was taken to the hospital. Court records indicate Sweet has an extensive criminal record in Bartholomew County involving possession and dealing methamphetamine, running a drug lab and having his probation revoked for drug use. He was currently out on bond for charges of methamphetamine possession and unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon, court records state.

However, Myers asked during the press conference that questions be focused on Emma rather than her father, as the first responders and community process the loss of the toddler under such tragic circumstances. He also asked that the community refrain from speculating or making divisive comments on social media which he said would only be painful for the family at this time.

Myers emphasized how proud he was of all the first responders from local and state agencies who worked together tirelessly for days to find the girl, saying the mutual aid and cooperation between everyone was an exceptional effort that he did not take for granted.

“I’m very proud of the relationships we have with the Indiana State Police and the Department of Natural Resources and how everyone worked together to find Emma,” he said.

“We wanted closure for the family and because of the efforts of these professionals, the family didn’t have to suffer for weeks,” Myers said of the search. “They (the search teams) weren’t going to leave until they found her. And I want to thank the community and the large group of people who wanted to help. There was an outpouring of support from the community.”

Myers described finding the girl as a “bittersweet” outcome, not what everyone had hoped for, but at least the 2-year-old could be returned to her family.

“My heart goes out to the family and friends,” Myers said of the loss of Emma, who he described as a “beautiful” little girl.

Agencies who responded

The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department thanked the large number of first responders who worked Thanksgiving weekend to find 2-year-old Emma Sweet.

Agencies who responded with the sheriff department include: Columbus Regional Health EMS, Indiana State Police, Columbus police, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Columbus Fire Department, Columbus Township Fire Department, Southwest Fire Department, Wayne Township Fire Department, Elizabethtown Fire Department, Danville Fire Department, Amity Fire Department, Cataract Fire Department and 31 Wrecker.

“We would also like to thank the Chaplains from both CPD and BCSO that have been available to comfort Emma’s family. The common goal and most important goal was to find Emma and bring her home to her family. Now the investigation continues as to how Emma got there.”

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Indiana Department of Natural Resources Capt. Jet Quillen, gives a press conference about recovering the body of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Indiana Department of Natural Resources Capt. Jet Quillen, from left, Indiana State Police Sgt. Stephen Wheeles and Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers give a press conference about recovering the body of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers gives a press conference about recovering the body of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Indiana Department of Natural Resources Capt. Jet Quillen, from left, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers and Indiana State Police Sgt. Stephen Wheeles give a press conference about recovering the body of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers, left, and Indiana State Police Sgt. Stephen Wheeles give a press conference about recovering the body of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Indiana Department of Natural Resources Capt. Jet Quillen, from left, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers and Indiana State Police Sgt. Stephen Wheeles give a press conference about recovering the body of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Bryan O’Neal covers his face after thanking those involved in recovering the body of his 2-year-old niece Emma Sweet during a press conference at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Bryan O’Neal is consoled by Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers as he thanks those involved in recovering the body of his 2-year-old niece Emma Sweet during a press conference at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Bryan O’Neal wipes tears from his eyes as he walks to the podium to thank those involved in recovering the body of his 2-year-old niece Emma Sweet during a press conference at the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ind., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021.

Jeremy Sweet

Photo provided Divers searched the East Fork White River on Saturday in the area surrounding Jeremy Sweet’s submerged F-150 truck to try to locate his missing 2-year-old daughter Emma. Her body was found Sunday about 2 1/2 miles downstream from the truck.

Photo provided Divers searched the East Fork White River on Saturday in the area surrounding Jeremy Sweet’s submerged F-150 truck to try to locate his missing 2-year-old daughter Emma. Her body was found Sunday about 2 1/2 miles downstream from the truck.

Photo provided This photo of 2-year-old Emma Sweet in her car seat was provided by Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department when they issued an alert Friday morning that she was missing.

Pictured: Searchers on the Bartholomew County Sheriff Department airboat are shown picking up Emma Sweet’s jacket from the East Fork White River near Southern Crossing after it was found by three Columbus men searching the riverbank on their own. Photo provided

Mike Wolanin | The Republic John Grider tells a television crew about how he and some of his friends alerted authorities after they located the jacket of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet as they searched the bank of East Fork White River in Columbus, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

Photo provided A crane was used to remove Jeremy Sweet’s Ford F-150 from the East Fork White River Saturday morning. Investigators are seeking a search warrant to search the vehicle for more evidence.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Friends and family of missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet, along with people concerned for her safety, watch Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers give an update on the search for Emma in Columbus, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers gives an update on search efforts to locate missing 2-year-old Emma Sweet in Columbus, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.