The FBI offers a look at their Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT):
Part 1: Uncovering Underwater Secrets
Daylight bounced off the surface of the Coosa River in Gadsden, Alabama, creating a soft luster over the relatively calm water. But below the surface, clouded with silt and mud, lay a secret that had been hidden for over 39 years.
In October 2022, a submerged vehicle was discovered in this section of the river—and local law enforcement believed this could be connected to an unsolved missing persons case.
They would need to examine the underwater scene, but the vehicle, a 1980 Ford Bronco, was filled with silt and mud up to the windshield. Any recovery would require an elite team of divers and underwater forensic specialists. Enter the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT).
About This Series
This is the first part of a series where you’ll get an inside look at USERT—from their rigorous training to tools of the trade.
FBI’s Dive Program
USERT comprises a group of highly trained FBI special agents tasked with searching for and recovering evidence underwater.
USERT grew out of the New York Field Office’s dive team, which was established in the 1980s. Initially, two agents who were recreational divers began finding weapons on their dives, many of which turned out to have connections to criminal cases. Word spread, and the requests for their special skillsets led to the creation of the New York Dive Team.
Today, USERT is part of the Evidence Response Team Unit (ERTU) within the FBI Laboratory. USERT divers are based out of the New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Washington field offices and collaborate on cases across the country. With a total of 64 divers for the program, there are approximately 16 divers in each of the four field offices.
USERT members are not only expert divers—each one joined the FBI as an agent with a broad range of skillsets. Every agent can have a specialized collateral duty, in addition to their other responsibilities, which can take up to 25% of their time. USERT falls under this category, requiring tryouts to make the team and then rigorous training to prepare for the often grueling underwater work.
With USERT’s specialization, they get called in for the toughest underwater recovery cases.
As Supervisory Special Agent Brian Hudson, USERT program manager, explained: “We work on FBI cases and support local law enforcement—they’ll work the details of the case and collect the intelligence. Once they know something’s in the water, they’ll contact us to come out and search. We’ll recover the evidence, and based on chain of custody, we’ll give that evidence to the case agent or local law enforcement. They’ll send the items to a lab for further examination.”
Depending on the case, USERT may also work in international waters or assist fellow U.S. organizations. For instance, while the Coast Guard has their own maintenance divers, they do not have their own investigative dive team. In one case, USERT helped the Coast Guard recover large amounts of cocaine from a sunken drug running boat off the coast of Honduras. USERT has also been deployed to countries like Iraq to assist in investigations.
The Gadsden Dive and Aftermath
The challenge in the Gadsden case remained: how to remove the sediment from the submerged Ford Bronco so the team could search for evidence?
“A USERT forensics operational specialist created a suction dredge system in-house to help the team remove the mud,” said Hudson.
The windshield had already been knocked out, which let the dredge system pull the silt and mud out of the vehicle. Agents passed the mud through a screen to catch smaller pieces of potential evidence. Once the sediment was cleared, the divers could better conduct their search.
Ultimately, they found an almost complete skeleton. In addition, the divers found a wallet—still intact, along with a driver’s license, Goodyear ID, and social security card.
The identification documents matched those of Alan Livingston, who had been reported missing 39 years earlier. The skeletal remains— among the oldest underwater human remains the FBI has recovered—were sent to a lab for examination and a DNA test to confirm that they belonged to Livingston.
When Livingston went missing in 1983, the police didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges. The latest discoveries found in the Coosa River could change that—and finally bring closure to the case.