Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said at a news conference that the body that search crews found floating in the northeast corner of Lake Piru earlier in the day was the 33-year-old Rivera.
Ayub said that while an autopsy and official identification are forthcoming, 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.”
The discovery came five days after Rivera disappeared on Lake Piru, where her 4-year-old son was found July 8 asleep and alone on a rented pontoon boat, authorities said.
She and her son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, had climbed off the boat and gone swimming. The boy told investigators that his mother helped him get back aboard, then he looked back and saw her disappear into the water, Ayub said.
“She must have mustered enough energy to get her son back on the boat, but not enough to save herself,” Ayub said.
Authorities say they believe Rivera drowned.
The lake an hour’s drive from Los Angeles was searched by dozens of divers working in waters with little visibility, with help from sonar and robotic devices combing the bottom and helicopters and drones searching above.
The sheriff said the body was probably stuck in very heavy vegetation for several days before floating to the top. He said divers had searched that area thoroughly without finding her.
The body was flown 40 miles (64 kilometres) to the coroner’s office in Ventura, where an autopsy would be conducted, authorities said. Rivera’s family has been notified of the discovery.
Family members chatted with Rivera via FaceTime when she was on the boat, and search crews watched the 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 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 had experience boating on the lake in Los Padres National Forest, authorities said.
When the boat failed to return, its vendor found the vessel drifting in the northern end of the lake late Wednesday afternoon with the boy asleep on board, about three hours after it was first taken out.
The boy was wearing a life vest, and another life jacket was found in the boat along with Rivera’s purse and identification.
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 most recent tweet on Rivera’s account, from the day before her death, read “just the two of us” along with a photo of her and her son.