First a human leg was found in Buena Vista Lake, and then a body trapped inside a vehicle. Now, a local charity founded by the mothers of the Bakersfield 3 is asking for a more thorough search, wondering what more could be beneath the surface in one of Kern County’s prime recreation areas.
As more and more people visit Buena Vista Lake — especially with the Lightning in a Bottle music and arts festival apparently returning on an annual basis in the near future — the Bakersfield 3 Charity has begun pushing for a more concerted effort toward uncovering any further human remains in the area.
In the past, the mothers of the Bakersfield 3 have successfully pushed for the Secret Witness program to be funded and the charity has raised funds for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to purchase sonar equipment, lending the group credibility. The mothers have become well-known in Kern County for their efforts to solve the homicides and disappearance of three Bakersfield residents that have been linked.
As their children’s cases have advanced, the mothers have started advocating for other causes, including the search of Buena Vista Lake.
“We would hope that if that was our child, and we didn’t know, that somebody would try to get them out,” said Di Byrne, mother of James Kulstad, who was fatally shot in a drive-by shooting in 2018. “I would love to take my young grandkids out there. There’s no way that I would do that. I would not want them traumatized with finding a part of human remains.”
In July 2018, a human leg was found in the lake, which remained unidentified for months. Almost two years later, lake-goers found more human remains, which led to the Sheriff’s Office discovering a submerged vehicle in the shallow area of the lake near the shoreline.
Following the discovery, the Bakersfield 3 Charity has asked the Kern County Board of Supervisors to devote labor to a search of the lake.
“We are asking the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff to look at what solutions the county has available to provide search and rescue resources to use our powerful tools to search Buena Vista Lake,” the charity wrote in a letter to the board. “We would ask that Supervisors explore every option to make this happen for Kern County residents and for families of victims.”
But the Sheriff’s Office has no plans to conduct such a search.
Lieutenant Joel Swanson said the department searched the lake in 2018 after the discovery of the leg, missing the submerged vehicle because it was placed in a part of the lake that was less than 10 feet deep, where sonar isn't as useful.
"If there was something in the deeper parts of the lake, we should have been able to find that,” he said. “Along the edges of the banks that run anywhere between 1- and 9-feet deep, there’s a potential that stuff could be there. Obviously we haven’t been able to search the entire lake with that regard.”
He added that the leg and the person found in the vehicle were likely connected, with the vehicle related to a missing person’s case out of southern California, and not related to the Bakersfield 3.
For those hoping for more closure, the Sheriff’s Office is leaving open the possibility that it may search the lake in the future.
“Right now, if we get any possible leads, anything else that pops up, then we’re more than happy to (search), but that’s what it’s going to take,” Swanson said. “We’re just not going to search every body of water in Kern County right now.”
But beyond just a simple search, Byrne hopes the county will devote resources toward cleaning up the recreation area.
“It needs to be cleaned up. It’s a great resource that Kern County has,” she said, noting she recently visited the lake. “You go around the reeded areas and the smell is horrible, and you look in it, and you see all this trash that, unfortunately, I don’t know how it’s getting out there, but it is.”
She added the community might need to come together to clean up the lake.
“We just really feel like it needs a thorough cleanup,” she continued. “And if there’s any other body parts out there, or cars, or remains of people, we really should try to make sure that that’s not going to happen again.”