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How a private investigator discovered the body of Brendan Santo

January 28, 2022
<p>Ryan Robison photographed at the Red Cedar River. Photo courtesy of Kendra Cassidy (Facebook). </p>

Ryan Robison photographed at the Red Cedar River. Photo courtesy of Kendra Cassidy (Facebook).

For the last 26 years, Ryan Robison has been a private investigator based in Troy, Michigan. He owns The Robison Group, a company with investigators in almost all 50 states, and Robison himself is a licensed PI in 39. 

Robison’s wife, Katie, had been closely following the October disappearance of Grand Valley State University student Brendan Santo from Michigan State’s campus, spurring Robison to drive to East Lansing to scope out the area. 

Then, his search began. 

Robison said he sent an email to Santo’s father, Brad Santo, introducing himself and offering his assistance in finding Brendan. After talking about the case for an hour over the phone on New Year’s Eve and an in-person meeting just short of five hours, Robison was able to get a feel for who Brendan was as a person.

“He told me where things were, what had been done, what hadn't been done and Brendan as a person, about his friends, family,” Robison said. “I said to him I would help him find Brendan. … We got started shortly after."

He worked on the case for 15 days prior to Santo being found. While MSUPD and assisting agencies extensively searched the campus areas of the Red Cedar, Robison initially focused his search elsewhere. 

“My primary focus initially … was going to be other leads [Brad] thought should be followed up on. … Other things that could have happened,” Robison said. “We weren't saying that there was no chance of it, but we felt so much time had passed, we had to examine some of the other potential leads.”

Then, Robison shifted his search to different portions of the river that he said brought him concern. During the last six-to-eight days of his investigation, Robison was focused on the deadfall in the Clippert Street area.

As he examined the structure and studied the current of the river, the more concerned Robison became. He concluded this was likely where Santo's body would be, if he was in the river.

While he didn’t stop investigating other matters, Robison said he spent about 80% of his time on the deadfall structure there, mostly trying to create camera angles.

“I could get some lenses down there, I could get some lights down there,” Robison said. “It is a monstrosity of a structure, and it's really hard to describe what's under it unless you see it."

Robison said the deadfall was an entanglement of logs and branches, interwoven like a web. With the foliage in the area, Robison was able to create a timeline just by looking at the structure.

“I just continued to work away at that area," Robison said.

In addition, the spot where Brendan was located in the logjam had been an area of significant interest for law enforcement and search teams, MSUPD inspector Chris Rozman said in an email statement.

"A complex law enforcement search operation was planned for that specific area of the river the week of January 24th that would involve clearing logs and debris to make it safer for divers and get a boat in the water,” Rozman said. 

In the late afternoon of Jan. 21, Robison brought one of his cameras back to the area. At around 11 p.m., he inspected them frame-by-frame. As he was going through the frames, Robison saw an image he was certain was Santo.

Robison, then, went to Santo's parents' house and informed them around midnight on Thursday, Jan. 21.

“Following this, Ryan contacted the 911 centers in both Ingham and Oakland counties sharing the photo and location,” Rozman said.

Rozman said the body was able to be identified as Santo through dental records.

Rozman said at the time of MSUPD's press conference on Friday, they were not aware of the extent of Robison’s involvement in locating Santo. 

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"We were not aware he was the one that went out on the ice and got these pictures himself,” Rozman said. “”We were aware that he had these pictures but we didn't know if he had somebody else. … That's credit to him.”

After MSUPD was notified, they closed off the area at 1 a.m. Between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., investigators cut down trees to access the river. Between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., they actively had a boat in the water working on a complicated recovery operation before recovering Brendan. 

"At midnight, our supervisor made phone contact with the PI and they had a phone conversation," Rozman said. “We, then, immediately had officers go out to the scene and try to understand where the PI was directing us to go. We made some after-hours phone calls to have the resources we had planned to come Monday, come on Friday instead."

Early in the investigation, multiple K9 teams were used, including cadaver dogs. Investigators had used sonar, canines and other underwater technology as part of the river search to identify areas of interest in the water.

The department had been working west downriver from the location Santo was last seen. They had cadaver dog indications in the area where Santo was last seen.

“It's highly probable his body was there at some point and … continued downstream during the course of our search operation," Rozman said.

Rozman said no foul play is expected to be involved. However, the details and circumstances surrounding the incident will continue to be investigated by MSUPD and its partners.

Most of Santo's property was located on his person, Rozman confirmed.

"Make MSU's Red Cedar River Areas Safe," a petition created Jan. 22, gained traction after Santo was located.

The petition calls on the university to put up barriers, lighting and signage in place around the area in which Santo was suspected to have gone missing.

As of Jan. 27, the petition has garnered over 18,000 signatures.

The "Bring Brendan Santo Home" Facebook page said it, too, will continue raising awareness of safety issues on MSU's campus.

"This is not the outcome any of us wanted or anticipated but we did accomplish bringing Brendan home," Dawn Brewer, Santo's aunt, wrote in a Jan. 22 Facebook post. "The full story is not yet known and there are still many questions. We may never know exactly what happened but we no longer have to wonder where Brendan is."

Robison said he will continue assisting the Santo family, if they need it. The results of the autopsy will drive his future involvement. 

“I'll be their continued support,” Robison said. “Whatever the family needs.”

For resources, the MSU Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, is available 24/7 by calling 517-355-8270. The MSU Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, is also available by calling 517-355-4506.

Students at Grand Valley State University can also contact their University Counseling Center at 616-331-3266.


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