Hear from the private investigator who found Brendan Santo’s body in the Red Cedar River

Private investigator keeps promise to 18-year-old’s father

Brendan Santo, 18, was visiting friends at Michigan State University over Halloween weekend last year when he went missing.

EAST LANSING, Mich.Brendan Santo, 18, was visiting friends at Michigan State University over Halloween weekend last year when he went missing.

For two and a half months, police searched for the missing Grand Valley State University student on MSU’s campus and in the Red Cedar River. They came up empty-handed.

Watch: Extended interview with private investigator who found Brendan Santo’s body

A few weeks ago private investigator Ryan Robison called Santo’s father and told him he would like to help in the search. He had never worked a case like this, but his wife followed Santo’s story closely on social media and pleaded with her husband to get involved.

“I really was, you know, apprehensive to take something like that on,” Robison said.

He said it was a five-hour-long talk with Santo’s dad that bonded them as fathers. The 48-year-old private investigator started his search on Jan. 6, about 100 yards downstream from the Clippert Street Trailhead. He started there because of Santo’s father.

“I just felt it was, like, a dad’s instinct,” Robison said. “He would always gravitate back here.”

For 14 bitter cold days in January, Robison spent much of his time at the river. Local 4 followed him there just last week to see how he solved the case.

“I mean, just sat here for like an hour and a half the first time,” Robison said. “I just continued to notice that it was just bouncing off that shore. Right? It’s bouncing off the shore. It’s coming here, like, everything wants to come right here.”

Then he noticed something strange. A pumpkin.

“The one day I took out about six or eight pumpkins,” Robison said. “I looked at how long they’d been in the water. It really helped me kind of establish a timeline of anything that went in the water during that time period where it was going to end up.”

If pumpkins were collecting there after going in the water around Halloween, could Brendan Santo’s body also be there? Robison started chopping away for hours and hours, day after day -- recording himself along the way.

“And that’s when once I got one of the heavier chisels through I realized not only is it not solid, it was like eight feet deep in the middle,” Robison said.

He said that’s when he realized Brendan Santo’s body could have possibly gotten pushed under the twisted, tangled mess. Robison started drilling holes and putting cameras in the water. He was only able to see about 16 inches in front of him and the search was tedious and slow.

“I felt like when I was able to put lights clear on the bottom. -- I could see it was coming up to me versus me trying to look down,” Robison said.

Sometimes Robison took still pictures under the water and he would take them home and look. On Jan. 20 he saw an image that stopped him in his tracks.

“It was like 11 p.m. that night and I’m sitting downstairs and I’m looking through the frames,” Robison said. “I knew what Brendan was wearing that night and probably the most identifiable aspect of that would have been this, the type of shoes he wore. So I was able to see, in that one frame, the shoes that he had on.”

He knew he had to go see Santo’s father. He didn’t wait until the morning.

“I drove over there and just knocked on his door and, obviously, me showing up at midnight was not something that he,” Robison said. “You know.”

The next day Robison was back at the site after he called authorities he quietly sat in the background watching the crews remove Santo’s body. He had to keep his promise to Santo’s father.

At one point in Robison’s investigation, he used a broom to hold his camera in place because the current was so strong. He even had to lug pounds of rock salt to keep the holes open in the ice as they would freeze overnight.

So, how was he able to find Santo’s body while all the other authorities were not? Robison said authorities were treating it as a recovery, so they would not put divers into the spot where he was searching as it was deadly. Robison treated it like a rescue, so he did things that most would never have tried and that’s because of the promise he made to Santo’s dad.

Robison returned to the river for the first time since Santo was recovered. He said it’s more peaceful because Santo’s body is no longer in the water and was able to be buried properly.

There are still questions in the case and the autopsy results have not yet been made public. Toxicology results could take weeks and authorities don’t suspect foul play -- the investigation is still active.

About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.