LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Glee” star Naya Rivera ‘s 4-year-old son told investigators that his mother, whose body was found in a Southern California lake Monday, boosted him back on to the deck of their rented boat before he looked back and saw her disappearing under the water, authorities said.
“She must have mustered enough energy to get her son back on the boat, but not enough to save herself,” Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said at a news conference.
The boy, Josey Hollis Dorsey, was found asleep and alone in a life vest on the drifting pontoon boat about three hours after they launched on Lake Piru northwest of Los Angeles, setting off a five-day search that ended with the discovery of the body of the 33-year-old floating near the surface early Monday, authorities said.
The mother and son had gone swimming, which was permitted in that part of the lake, Ayub said. She was not wearing a life vest.
Authorities believe that Rivera drowned accidentally, and that her body was most likely trapped in the vegetation under the lake for several days before floating to the top, Ayub said.
Divers had already thoroughly searched the area where she was eventually found, but shrubbery that had grown wildly in the area, which was recently dry, must have kept her hidden in the murky water.
Family members chatted with Rivera via FaceTime when she was on the boat, and search crews watched those videos for clues to where she might have gone down, Ayub said.
“It has been an extremely difficult time for her family throughout this ordeal,” Ayub said “We share in their grief.”
Rivera played singing cheerleader Santana Lopez for six seasons from 2009 to 2015 on the Fox musical-comedy “Glee.”
She is the third major cast member from the show to die in their 30s.
The announcement of her death comes seven years to the day after co-star Cory Monteith died at 31 from a toxic mix of alcohol and heroin, with the series losing one of its leads while it was still on the air.
Another co-star, Mark Salling, who Rivera dated at one point, killed himself in 2018 at age 35 after pleading guilty to child pornography charges.
Rivera’s body was flown by helicopter 40 miles (64 kilometres) to the coroner’s office in Ventura, where an autopsy would be conducted and an official identification made, authorities said.
Ayub said the circumstances from the location of the body to the fact that no one else has been reported missing in the lake makes the department “confident that the body we found is Naya Rivera.”
Rivera had experience boating on the lake in Los Padres National Forest an hour's drive from Los Angeles.
It was closed down and searched by dozens of divers with help from sonar and robotic devices combing the bottom and helicopters and drones searching above.
Surveillance video showed the mother and son parking and renting the boat at about 1 p.m. on July 8.
The vendor who rented it to them went looking for them when they failed to return on time, and found the boat drifting in the northern end of the lake with the boy aboard.
The boy, Rivera’s son from her marriage to actor Ryan Dorsey, was safe and healthy and quickly reunited with family members after he was found, authorities said.
His parents divorced in 2018 after nearly four years of marriage.
The day before her death, Rivera tweeted a photo of herself and Josey that read, “just the two of us.”
“Rest sweet, Naya. What a force you were,” wrote “Glee” co-star Jane Lynch on Twitter. Steven Canals, who co-created and produced the FX television show “Pose,” tweeted that he was “heartbroken over all the stories that will remain untold.”
Viola Davis sent her prayers to Rivera’s family and Kristin Chenoweth said: “Thank you for what you gave the world.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that “as a Latina, it’s rare to have a rich, complex characters reflect us in media.”
Rivera began acting at a young age, but she rose to national attention playing a lesbian teen on “Glee,” which aired from 2009 until 2015 on Fox. She is survived by her parents, Yolanda and George; a younger brother, Mychal; a sister, Nickayla; and her 4-year-old son.
“Naya Rivera was a fierce talent with so much more to do and this is such a terrible tragedy. We are forever grateful for the indelible contribution she made to ‘Glee,’ from the first episode to the last,” said a statement from 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment.
A native of Santa Clarita, California, Rivera began acting at 4, appearing in such series as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters” and “The Bernie Mac Show.” As a teen, she struggled with an eating disorder and had breast implants put in at 18 (“a confidence thing, not a sexual thing,” she would later write in her autobiography).
“I had the lowest self esteem in high school possible. I wasn’t popular, I didn’t have friends, but I would say it’s really important that you know who you are and you’re going to win in the end because of that,” Rivera said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press.
She worked odd jobs as a telemarketer, a nanny, a waitress and an Abercrombie & Fitch greeter before landing the role of Santana Lopez on Ryan Murphy’s “Glee.” She auditioned by singing Destiny’s Child’s “Emotion.” The pilot offered her no speaking lines.
Rivera played a secondary character — the mean cheerleader with blistering put-downs — in the show’s first season, but became a show regular in the second season as she struggled to reveal her character’s sexual identity. Many on social media credited her character for making them feel better about their own sexuality.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d actually be playing a teen lesbian,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “I didn’t think it was going to go this far. But I’m glad that it did, because there have been a lot of fans who have expressed that they’ve been going through similar situations in their lives. I’ve heard from girls that are in high school, they’re 16, 17, and they’re like, ‘I came out to my mom,’ or ‘I came out to my friends, and thank you for helping me do that.’”
Some of her more memorable songs on the show include a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” with guest star Gwyneth Paltrow, “Here Comes the Sun” with Demi Lovato, and a tearful cover of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.”
Rivera struggled to get career traction amid the rising young talent on the show that included Cory Monteith, Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Amber Riley, Melissa Benoist and Dianna Agron. She was no longer a series regular during the sixth and final season of “Glee.”
“It would be an understatement to say that ‘Glee’ changed my life. It overhauled it. It got me out of debt. It helped to cement my career. And before the show, I’d never had a group of people I was that close with,” she wrote in her memoir, titled “Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up.”
“But while ‘Glee’ changed our lives, it didn’t necessarily change who we were. We started the show as a ragtag group of misfits, and six seasons later, when we filmed the last episode, we were still the same bunch of misfits. Just now wearing more expensive jeans.”
After the show, Rivera sought success in film and music. She made her feature film debut in 2014′s “At the Devil’s Door,” playing a woman caught in the middle of supernatural events, and released the single “Sorry” in 2013 featuring rapper Big Sean, a one-time fiance.
She and actor Ryan Dorsey were married in 2014 and their son, Josey, was born in 2015. She called her young son “my greatest success, and I will never do any better than him.”
Rivera was arrested and charged in West Virginia in 2017 with misdemeanor domestic battery after she allegedly hit Dorsey. The charge was dismissed because Dorsey did not wish to press charges. They divorced soon after.
Most recently, Rivera had a role on Lifetime’s “Devious Maids,” released her memoir in 2016 and played school administrator Collette Jones in the YouTube Red online series “Step Up: High Water” starring Ne-Yo. The show is about a cutthroat performing arts school in Atlanta.
Rivera’s death is the latest death in a tragic arc of “Glee” actors. Monteith died in 2013 — exactly seven years to the day after Rivera’s body was identified — from a toxic mix of alcohol and heroin, and Rivera’s ex-boyfriend Mark Salling, who played a jock on the series, killed himself in 2018 after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. Rivera and Salling dated for three years and broke up in 2010.
In the preface to her autobiography, Rivera wrote that motherhood had changed her life and given it perspective. She said she was braver, too.
“Your life doesn’t have to be perfect for you to be proud. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: the more imperfect your life has been, the prouder you should be, because it means you’ve come that much further, and also probably had a lot more fun along the way.”