RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – Samantha Jean Hopper was dropping her young daughter off for the night when the pregnant Arkansas mother of two vanished without a trace.
On Tuesday, more than 23 years after Hopper, 20, and her 1-year-old daughter, Courtney Esther Danielle Holt, disappeared, Hopper’s blue Ford Tempo was pulled from a lake in Russellville. Human remains were found inside.
The remains were sent to the Arkansas State Crime Lab in Little Rock for positive identification through DNA testing, Pope County Sheriff’s Office officials said.
Cpl. Erick Riggs, the lead investigator on the case, told KARK that the resolution of the case was a long time coming.
“It’s a 10-year case for me,” Riggs said. “This is one of those cases your family knows about, your kids know about, and it’s emotional,” Riggs told the news station.
According to authorities, Hopper had plans to drop her daughter off the night of Sept. 11, 1998, before continuing with a friend to a concert in Little Rock. She did not make it to either location, and neither Hopper nor Courtney was seen alive again.
Hopper, who was about eight months pregnant at the time, left behind another young daughter. Dezarea Carpenter, who now lives in Florida, expressed relief last week that her mother and sister had finally been found.
Her husband, Richard Carpenter Jr., spoke out as well.
“My wife’s mother was a loving mom doing her best one day at a time to take care of her kids when she mysteriously went missing 23 years ago,” he wrote on Facebook. “This left many open wounds and even more unanswered questions.”
The Carpenters had been raising money to fund the search for Hopper and Courtney. The fundraiser is now going to be used to pay for a proper burial for the infant and Hopper, who did not have life insurance through her job at Waffle House.
“Thank you for sharing your stories and support with our family,” Dezarea Carpenter wrote on a Facebook memorial page. “It has made this moment possible. Please respect our privacy as we begin to process 23 years of emotions.”
The search for Hopper’s vehicle was conducted by Adventures with Purpose, a nonprofit group that travels the country working on cold cases. A group called Chaos Divers assisted the search.
Watch video from Adventures with Purpose below.
A post on Adventures with Purpose’s Facebook page explained how the car was located. The two groups met with Hopper’s mother, daughter and best friend to learn more about Hopper.
“Working from clues as to Samantha’s habits and events of that day in 1998, both dive teams split up to scan multiple locations in the area of Lake Dardanelle, with AWP taking the route along Mill Creek (and) sending Chaos Divers into the Illinois Bayou near Pleasant View Road,” the post read.
About an hour into the search, a discovery was made in the Illinois Bayou.
“Chaos Divers was able to sonar under one of the Pleasant View Road bridges, and as soon as the car was viewed on sonar, it was immediately identified as an overturned, small car, approximately 8 feet deep,” Chaos Divers reported on its own Facebook page.
A diver went into the water and identified the car as a blue Tempo. It bore no license plate because the car was new at the time Hopper disappeared.
“With as much certainty as possible, (the diver) was able to identify the car matched the target we were looking for,” the post read.
The searchers called 911 shortly before noon. Pope County’s Office of Emergency Management arrived to help get the decaying vehicle out of the water.
Hopper’s family was at the scene when the car was brought up.
“While it was gut wrenching to have to see the tears stream down their faces as they were told the news, it was also incredibly heartwarming to see the smiles on their faces and the weight release from their shoulders knowing they were potentially bringing their loved ones home,” Chaos Divers’ post read.
Adventures with Purpose members agreed.
“It is our honor to have brought Samantha home,” the group’s Facebook post read. “Hug the ones you love for you never know when it might be the last time you see them.”
Pope County Sheriff Shane Jones extended his condolences to Hopper’s loved ones, and said his department is “thankful to have been a small part of helping bring this 23-year-old case to closure.”