On July 8, 2020, Glee star Naya Rivera was reported missing during a day out on a lake with her 4-year-old son, Josey Hollis Dorsey. According to People, the 33-year-old actor rented a pontoon boat for her and Dorsey to take out on Lake Piru in Ventura County, CA and aroused suspicion when her three-hour rental window went by and the pair failed to return to shore. As Deadline reported, the boat was eventually found "later in the day" with little Dorsey sleeping aboard, but no sign of his mother. A search party was immediately dispatched with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department tweeting that they were relying on divers and sonar scans to search the lake, as well as checking and rechecking "cabins and outbuildings in the surrounding area" and analyzing the final photo Rivera sent her family.
On July 13, 2020, Deadline confirmed the tragic news that, following a five-day search, Rivera’s body was reportedly recovered from the Southern California lake. Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said his team was "confident" they had found the actor and an autopsy confirmed their suspicions the following day, per ABC. Since that day, heartbreaking details have come to light about the Step Up star’s final moments and what her son experienced that day on Lake Piru. Here’s what we’ve learned about Naya Rivera since her death.
According to the death certificate, Naya Rivera died within ‘minutes’
Although we may never know what exactly went wrong that horrible day in July 2020, we do know, per NBC Los Angeles, that Rivera and her son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, got off the pontoon and into the water for a swim, but only one of them made it back onto the boat.
While the Ventura County Medical Examiner was unable to provide details about the lead-up to the tragedy, they did conclude that the actor’s death was purely accidental. Quoting an official statement from the county’s authorities, People reported that the official cause of death determined by an autopsy was accidental drowning and that the medical examiner’s findings were "consistent with a drowning and the condition of the body is consistent with the time that she was submerged." What’s more, "no traumatic injuries or disease processes were identified at autopsy" and, according to her death certificate, which was seen by People, Rivera died within a matter of "[minutes]."
As USA Today reported, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub later revealed that while Dorsey was wearing a life vest, Rivera reportedly wasn’t (an adult life vest, which was supposedly meant for her, was found on the boat) and her body was discovered "’in the northeastern portion of the lake’ where the water was 35 to 60 feet deep."
Naya Rivera used all of her energy to save her son
Following an interview with Josey Hollis Dorsey, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub shared additional details of Naya Rivera’s tragic death with the media. As Ayub revealed, per People, the 4-year-old told authorities that he and his mom "swam in the lake together." According to USA Today, Dorsey "described being helped into the boat by Naya, who boosted him onto the deck from behind. [He] told investigators that he looked back and saw her disappear under the surface of the water." Ayub concluded that he believes "she mustered enough energy to get her son back on the boat, but not enough to save herself."
Speculating about what may have gone wrong when the pair entered the water, Robert Inglis, a member of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Search & Rescue Team, told Us Weekly that not wearing a life vest may have been the biggest factor in Rivera’s death. "They jumped off the boat. It doesn’t take much to get exhausted if you’re not in shape," he reasoned, elaborating, "Winds do kick up at that lake, and the boats start to get away and you are trying to go after that boat […] you could get a leg cramp." Inglis also noted that "if you’re not familiar with the boat and getting on and off the boat, you can get tired just climbing onto the boat. You can fall back in, people hit their heads, things like that."
Ryan Dorsey saw Naya Rivera the day before the accident
Naya Rivera and Ryan Dorsey secretly tied the knot in July 2014 and welcomed their son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, in September 2015. Although it was a complicated relationship that ended when their divorce was finalized in June 2018, they remained close for their son and the actor’s unexpected death hit her ex hard.
Initially choosing to remain quiet, Ryan broke his silence on July 25, 2020 with a heartfelt post on Instagram. "This is so unfair," he wrote alongside a photo of Rivera hugging their son on the beach. "There’s not enough words to express the hole left in everyone’s hearts. I can’t believe this is life now. I don’t know if I’ll ever believe it." Revealing that he had seen his ex right before she went missing — "We were just in the back swimming with Josey the day before" — the actor said he was "thankful for our times and our journey that brought us together and gave us the sweetest and kindest smart little boy we could ever hope for."
Ryan went on to share a sweet anecdote, writing, "I remember sometimes you used to get annoyed at me: ‘Ryan can you stop snap chatting!’ Haha. I’m glad I didn’t listen to you because I have hundreds and probably thousands of snaps and videos that Josey will have forever and know his momma loved him more than life, and how much fun we had together as he was growing up."
Naya Rivera and her son tried to call for help
In September 2020, the Ventura County Medical Examiner released Naya Rivera’s full autopsy report and official findings from the investigation and, as People reported, they contained tragic details about the actor’s final moments with her son. The outlet obtained a copy of the report which made note of Josey Hollis Dorsey’s recollection of counting to three, jumping into Lake Piru with his mom, then her telling him to get back on the boat. "She helped him onto the boat and he then heard [Naya] yell ‘help’ and she put her arm in the air," the report reveals. "She then disappeared into the water." According to a wrongful death suit (via CNN), "Josey knew Naya was still in the water, and heard her cry, ‘Help! Help!’ in her struggle to get back to the boat and avoid drowning." He then "yelled for help and cried alone in the boat until he was found more than an hour later."
The autopsy report obtained by People described Rivera as being a "good swimmer," and another report obtained by the outlet noted that she "would have vertigo to the point of vomiting" and that it "would get worse when she was in the water." According to People, Rivera’s toxicology report showed minimal traces of amphetamine, diazepam, ethanol, and phentermine in her system, and that her blood alcohol level was 0.016.
Ryan Dorsey, Naya Rivera’s ex-husband, filed a wrongful death lawsuit
In November 2020, Naya Rivera’s ex-husband, Ryan Dorsey, joined forces with lawyers representing the actor’s estate in order to file a wrongful death suit on behalf of Josey Hollis Dorsey. According to CNN, they chose to sue Ventura County, Parks Management Company (which rented Rivera the boat), and United Water Conservation District.
The plaintiffs claim that the pontoon did not have proper safety equipment, such as "a safely accessible ladder, adequate rope, anchor, radio, or security mechanisms to prevent swimmers from being separated from the watercraft." According to People, the suit also claims that "later inspection revealed that the boat was not even equipped with any flotation or life-saving devices, in direct violation of California law," although it was initially reported that Josey was wearing a life vest and that another was found beside him. The suit then goes on to highlight the fact that there wasn’t "a single sign anywhere — not at the entrance, at the dock, at the popular swimming area of Diablo Cove, not anywhere — warning of the lake’s strong currents, low visibility, high winds, changing water depths, underwater caves, ledges and drop offs, or the trees, brush and other debris that congest its waters due to the vastly changing water levels and winds."
The Glee cast paid tribute to Naya Rivera on her birthday
Jan. 12, 2021 would have marked Naya Rivera’s 34th birthday and the day was a painful reminder to all those who loved her. Ryan Dorsey took to Instagram to share a sweet black and white photo of them with their son and wrote that it was "just as surreal as it is real that you’re gone. If that makes sense, but none of this still makes any sense." Rivera’s former Glee co-stars also shared sweet messages with Heather Morris writing, "I love you and I can’t describe how much I miss you" and Amber Riley admitting, "I miss you so very much and I wish you were here. There hasn’t been a day where you don’t cross my mind, and when you do, I take a moment of silence to remember all the beautiful moments we got to spend together."
It’s clear that the Glee gang won’t be forgetting their angel any time soon. During Christmas 2020, a large chunk of the cast, including Dianna Agron, Heather Morris, Chord Overstreet, Jenna Ushkowitz, Kevin McHale, and Matthew Morrison, got together to launch a GoFundMe page in Rivera’s honor. Calling it the "SNIXXMAS Charity Drive in Memory of Naya Rivera," its goal was to raise as much money as possible for Los Angeles-based nonprofit Alexandria House (a cause close to the late actor’s heart) and the donations quickly poured in. When all was said and done, the Glee alums were able to donate $117,900 and keep Rivera’s memory alive.