Riley Strain Case: Family Friend Reveals "Huge" Development in Death Investigation

According to a family friend of Riley Strain, who was found dead March 22, his loved ones have spoken to the last person who talked to the University of Missouri student before he went missing.

By Olivia Evans Apr 12, 2024 7:47 PMTags
Watch: Riley Strain's Death Appears "Accidental," Police Say

The Riley Strain case continues to unfold. 

Weeks after the body of the University of Missouri student was found in Nashville's Cumberland River, family friend Chris Dingman says they received intel from the alleged last person who spoke to Riley before he went missing. And according to Chris, who has spoken on behalf of the family several times since Riley's body was discovered, the unidentified person also gave a statement to detectives. 

"That was huge," he told News Nation April 10 of the newfound witness. "That was something we were looking for. He told the detective his account of the story of what happened to Riley."

However, in response to Chris' interview, a spokesperson for the Nashville police department tells E! News that a person who originally came forward has since recanted their statement. Following detective interrogation, the person said that they had not actually seen Riley, but someone else. The case remains open.

Riley—who disappeared on the evening of March 8 during his fraternity's trip to Nashville—was found eight miles away from where he was last seen in the Cumberland River on March 22. At the time his body was recovered, the 22-year-old was wearing the shirt he had been wearing on the night he went missing as well as his watch, authorities said, but his boots, pants and wallet were missing.

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After an initial autopsy found no foul play to be involved in Riley's death, the college student's death was declared "accidental." However, his family ordered another autopsy, during which the coroner found there was no water in his lungs, Chris told News Nation. 

"I'm not a crime drama person by no means," Chris told the outlet March 27. "But usually water in the lungs means that you know, they were alive when they went into the water."


And while Riley's family, which includes mother Michelle Whiteid and stepfather Chris Whiteid, and father Ryan Gilbert and stepmother Milli Gilbert, have not made a public statement regarding the development, Chris clarified that the family "100 percent" believes something more than Riley simply falling into the river led to his death. 

Riley's father also clarified that the family continues to seek answers from his son's Delta Chi fraternity brothers about the night Riley went missing. 

"We haven't really heard much from them," Ryan added to News Nation. "There's a lot of things we'd like to find out from them."

Read on for every detail about the Riley Strain investigation.

Riley Strain's Final Hours

Riley Strain, 22, a business and financial planning major at the University of Missouri, was among a big group of Delta Chi fraternity brothers that arrived in Nashville by bus on Friday, March 8.

They checked into The Tempo hotel on Rosa L. Parks Boulevard, a short walk to the nightlife on Broadway.

"When they left Tempo, the went down to, I believe, Miranda Lambert's bar [Casa Rosa] first, spent probably about an hour and 15 minutes or so, maybe a little longer, there," Riley's stepdad Chris Whiteid later told NBC affiliate WSMV 4, describing what he knew of Riley's whereabouts before he went missing. Then the group went to the Garth Brooks-owned Friends in Low Places Bar & Honky Tonk, where Riley FaceTimed his mom, Michelle Whiteid, at around 7:30 p.m. 

"I said, 'Have fun, be careful, I love you,'" Michelle told WSMV. "I got an 'I love you' and that's the last I heard."

Chris explained that he overheard Riley detailing his evening to Michelle. "He didn't even sound like he had been drinking a lot," Chris told NBC News, adding that Riley continued to text with his mom for another hour or so after they spoke. 

Through bank records, it was later established that Riley also visited Kid Rock’s bar before heading to Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink, with Luke Bryan’s establishment being the last of the four places visited on the night he disappeared.

“He'd left Garth’s and went to Kid Rock's, and then spent an hour at Kid Rock's,” Chris explained in an April 16 NewsNation interview. “Then showed up at Luke Bryant's at 9:15, I believe what the detective told us. He was in Luke Bryan’s from 9:15 to 9:36—21 minutes.”

Riley Is Escorted Out of Luke Bryan's Bar

The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission confirmed March 14 it was investigating whether Riley arrived at Luke's 32 Bridge "visibly intoxicated" and was overserved. 

The bar maintained in a statement that Riley bought one drink and two waters before he was asked to leave at 9:35 p.m., "based on our conduct standards," and escorted out through the front exit on Broadway. The business, which also noted that it was cooperating with the police and the TABC, stated that a member of Riley's party accompanied him downstairs to the door but then went back upstairs to the bar when Riley left.

"Y'all this is scary," the country singer owner wrote while also sharing the restaurant's statement to his Instagram Story. "Praying for his safe return."

The TABC told E! News in a statement April 1 that it's "investigating multiple places" to determine whether a violation of state alcohol law occurred at any of the establishments where Riley was served alcohol on March 8.

"All licensed establishments questioned have been cooperative," the agency said. "The final report will be made public once the investigation has been closed."

In an April 16 interview with NewsNation, Riley's mother recalled a text Riley had sent her the night he went missing saying rum and coke he had at one of the bars tasted like barbecue. 

She noted, "Maybe there was something in it that shouldn't have been."

It wasn't Riley's first time in Nashville, according to his stepdad.

But he and his friends "got separated," Chris told WSMV on March 11. "The boys called him, and he said I'm walking back to my hotel. They didn't think anything about it." 

But a security camera outside an escape room business captured Riley on Third Avenue North cutting across a parking lot and going in a different direction. Another camera recorded him on Gay Street crossing First Avenue North at 9:47 p.m. 

Upon reaching the corner, he stopped and, staggering a bit, looked back in the direction he'd just come from before continuing down the street. (Police shared both videos on social media during the investigation.)

Chris said they wanted to see "what was happening before the parking lot, and we'd also like to know what happened after he crossed down onto Gay Street because there's such a void that we haven't seen. There's something there that's going to fill some gaps."

Riley's father, Ryan Gilberttold WSMV, "He made it as far as we know, basically to the James Robertson [Parkway] Bridge, and that's the critical time where things went dark." The last Life360 ping from Riley's phone came from near the bridge, which crosses the Cumberland River, according to his parents and stepdad.

On April 10, the family was approached by a new witness who claimed to have interacted with Riley on the night he disappeared. Chris Dingman, a friend of Riley’s family, described the witness’ testimony as “huge.” However, authorities at the Nashville Police Department confirmed to E! News April 12 that the statement had been recanted. 

According to what Riley's friends told Chris, as he detailed to WSMV, when the rest of the group got back to the hotel that night at around 3:15 a.m. and saw he wasn't there, they went back out to look for him and tried to track him using Snapchat locations. When that proved fruitless, and then Riley wasn't to be found in any of the other rooms where roughly 30 members of the fraternity were staying, the guys called Chris and Michelle.

He and Riley's mom jumped in the car, Chris said, and drove straight to Nashville from Springfield, Mo.

Later, another patron in the hotel revealed to the family that they heard loud noises and stated the students were, “freaking out about something,” on the night of March 8.

In an April 16 interview with NewsNation, Riley’s father Ryan clarified that another member of the fraternity had “hurt his hand.” As he explained, “Apparently it didn’t have anything to do with Riley.”

During the same interview, Riley's family also emphasized that 14 hours passed before the fraternity reported him missing to the authorities.  

The Investigation Begins

Police said they responded to the Tempo hotel March 9 in response to a call about a missing person. A friend of Riley's called 911 and told the dispatcher one of his "good buddies" was missing, according to a recording of the call obtained by WKRN. The caller said Riley's last phone location was near the river at 11 p.m.

"When we got into town Saturday evening, we met with an [MNPD] officer and he has been amazing as far as I'm concerned," Chris told WKRN. "He made phone calls, he radioed people to go check locations while he was with us. He was also making phone calls and he sent the report out and it hit the national database. I felt like things were handled very well, and he was very helpful."

A police report reviewed by CNN noted that Verizon Wireless determined the last ping from Riley's phone was .64 miles southwest of a cell tower located at 19 Oldham Street, near the river, but a search of the area came up empty.

Meanwhile, the family retroactively expressed frustration with Riley’s friends.

"Why wouldn't they have called the police when they got back at 3:15 in the morning and didn't see him then?" Michelle told NewsNation April 16. "I don't know."

The fraternity brothers reportedly continued with their partying plans while Chris and Michelle searched hospitals for Riley March 9.  

"We come back and they're coming back, some of them from the party and they're waving at us as we're sitting in the truck," Chris added. "How does that make you feel?"

The First Trace of Riley Strain

On March 17, police shared that two women who were voluntarily aiding in the search found Riley's bank card on the embankment between Gay Street and the Cumberland River.

The next day, police shared the latest video they'd obtained of Riley on the night of March 8: He had a brief interaction with a cop responding to a vehicle burglary on Gay Street, on a sidewalk adjacent to the Cumberland River, at 9:52 p.m.

The officer, who was wearing a body cam, can be heard asking Riley how he's doing, to which the young man replied, "I'm good, how are you?" and kept walking.

"To those who are saying that they believe he could have been in distress, that somebody could have been after him as he walked onto Gay Street," said police spokesman Don Aaron, "well, as you see in the video, he's walking by himself on the river side and speaks to a police officer as the officer is looking at a vehicle that had been broken into."

So far, the officer said, they had found no evidence to suggest Riley had been a victim of foul play.

The Search Hits the Water

Chris shared during a March 19 press conference that the family was getting an assist from the United Cajun Navy, a volunteer-based disaster response agency. 

"We appreciate more than you'll ever know the outpouring that we've received from the community, from the press and everyone else involved," he said. "Our goal is still to bring Riley home. We feel that is still a very viable goal. We feel like Dave [David Flagg, national director of operations for the UCN], his team and the volunteers that he knows are very skilled and will help bring this for us."

MNPD Sgt. Robert Nielsen also stressed to the media that they were continuing to follow up on tips and doing everything they could to find Riley.

On March 20, the Cheatham County Sheriff's Office oversaw what they described as a "basic shutdown" at the Cheatham Lock and Dam, where the Cumberland River flows into Cheatham Lake, in connection with the search. Investigators sifted through debris that subsequently floated to the surface, according to WKRN.

Riley's dad Ryan was also out on a different part of the river that day, the station reported, on a boat with the United Cajun Navy.

"I've got to be here," he told WKRN. "I've got to be on the water. I wanted to be on the water last week, and we had some other family members that took that role that day. But I'm glad to be out here because I want to be here, I want to be the one that finds him."

Riley Strain's Body Is Found

At 7:28 a.m. on March 22, a local worker called police to report seeing a body in the Cumberland River in Western Nashville, Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said at a press conference later that day.

The Davidson County Medical Examiner's Office positively identified Riley, but his black and white shirt and other identifiable objects on the body, including a watch, also indicated it was him, according to the chief.

"I want to say to the family, my heart and prayers go out to you all for this very unfortunate and tragic incident," the chief said. "I also want to say thank you to the Nashville community and the outpouring of support from the community in trying to help us locate Mr. Strain."

Factoring in his height and weight, investigators had estimated when and where Riley's body might surface if he'd gone into the river. "This is the 14th day," the chief explained, "so we were really expecting anytime soon to find him. So we were in the right spot. It's just unfortunate."

He said there was "no other evidence to suggest anything other than" that Riley fell into the river.

Riley's dad, mom and stepfather all wore green, his favorite color, to police headquarters that afternoon, according to WKRN

Speaking to reporters, Michelle said, "I just ask that you mommas out there, hug your babies tight tonight please. Please, for me, just hug your babies tight tonight. And again, thank you, thank you for sharing our story."

Two Autopsies

An autopsy was performed March 23. Police confirmed to E! News that a detective was present for the postmortem and cause of death continued to appear accidental, with no signs of foul play-related trauma. Toxicology results are still pending.

In the meantime, Riley's family hired a private company to perform an independent autopsy, family friend Chris Dingman told NewsNation on March 27.

"The original autopsy came out just like theirs did with, you know, no obvious signs of trauma, as in weapons, guns or knives or etc.," he said. "But they were able to do a little bit more testing on specific items." He also referred to a police report that stated Riley didn't have on his jeans or his boots, and his wallet wasn't recovered.

Another thing that "threw the family for a loop," Chris Dingman continued, "was the coroner going on record with a news person in Nashville stating about the lack of water in his lungs. It raises more questions, you know? I'm not a crime drama person by no means, but usually water in the lungs means that, you know, they were alive when they went into the water."

Saying Goodbye to Riley Strain

The family then went about the rituals of mourning: A visitation and celebration of life were held March 29 at Greenlawn Funeral Home in Springfield,Mo. According to an online obituary paying tribute to Riley's "vibrant spirit and loving nature," they're planning a private burial.

For the service, the family asked attendees to wear something green and dress comfortably, "to honor Riley's love of life."

Riley's family continues to search for answers. 

Weeks after Riley's body was found, his family is determined to find the cause of the 22-year-old's death.

They also noted they still haven't received adequate details of the night of March 8 from Riley's friends.  

“I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have reached out to us, wanting to provide information from that night," Chris told NewsNation April 16. "Maybe I’m crazy, but why should we have to reach out to them and beg them for information on a missing brother?”

The family also said they will continue to speak out about the invesitgation until they have answers. 

"There's a hole in my heart," Michelle added. "There always will be. And we may never know what happened that night, and that makes it even worse for me. But yeah, I would like to know everything that happened that day."

This story was originally published on April 12, 2024, at 12:47 p.m. PT and updated at 3:18 p.m. PT with a statement from the Nashville police.

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