Family searches for man missing after crash on Mathews Bridge

Family will search St. Johns River by boat Sunday afternoon

By Chris Parenteau - Reporter, Ashley Harding - Reporter, Nick Jones - Producer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla - Vernon Stephens, the last known driver of a red Mitsubishi Galant involved in a crash on the Mathews Bridge Friday night, remains missing.

His family announced Sunday they will begin their own search for him by boat in the afternoon, starting at Arlington Marina. They spoke at a news conference attended by Stephens' wife, mother and other family members.

Stephens' wife, Andrea, said her husband was going to meet a friend to celebrate their birthday Friday night. She pleaded for anyone with information to come forward, as did his mother, Yvonne Golden, who said Stephens is her only child and asked for prayer.

"What I need is answers, Golden said. "This is my only child."

Family members have unsuccessfully tried to contact Stephens and there is growing concern that he may have been thrown off the bridge from the impact of the crash.

"I want to know if anybody has seen anything," Golden said. "That's a big bridge and somebody had to see something."

Family members say Stephens is an insurance salesmen with the National Teachers Association, and is father to a 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

"He's the father of our two children, Andrea said. "He's 39 years old. In a couple of weeks it will be our 11-year anniversary."

The volunteer search started around 2:30 p.m. and will end at nightfall, according to family members. Family and friends are canvassing the area around the bridge on land and expect to expand the search within the coming days.

According to JSO, the crash happened around 11 p.m. Friday in the westbound lanes of the bridge.

Officers say that early indications are that the Galant was broken down on the bridge when it was hit by a car traveling westbound.   The driver of the second car was transported to the hospital with minor injuries.

Stephens was last seen at dinner with family Friday night wearing a pink shirt, gray pants, and dress shoes.

"Family says he was going to meet friends in the downtown area," said Melissa Bujeda with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.  "Those individuals have been contacted, but nobody knows the whereabouts of this individual. Like I said, we are definitely concerned that he may have gone off the side of the bridge."

Police, Coast Guard crews and family members spent Saturday hanging up flyers and searching the waters for the married, father of two.

"If you look at the flier and see that infectious smile on his face, that smile is there all the time," said Robert James, Stephens' brother-in-law. "It's there when he wakes up in the morning, it's there when he goes to work. We're trying to find a good man and bring him home to his family. Please, do anything you can do to further that effort."

His loved ones said he would have never just gone off on his own and was in a great mood shortly before he disappeared.

"As a matter of fact, just last (Friday) night, he left a talent show for his kids which they participated in," said Daryll Paiva, a family friend. "They took third prize. He was sending out messages to people and videos."

This isn't the first time a tragedy occurred on the Mathews Bridge. In 2004, Donna Campbell was killed after she was thrown from her Jeep and into the water. Her death eventually led to changes in the bridge's grating system.

But until investigators say otherwise, Stephens' family and friends believe he's alive and hope someone will soon give them the answers they need.

"We know he's out there. He's not gone," said Stephens' brother-in-law Kentrich Webb. "We're holding on. We believe in God to send those answers."

The family has created a Facebook page called "Searching for Vernon Stephens."

The Coast Guard said they have suspended their search until they have new information in the case.

If you have seen Stephens, you are asked to call police at 904-630-0500.

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