The Heartbreaking Death Of Naya Rivera, The Beloved ‘Glee’ Star Who Drowned At Age 33

Published April 17, 2024
Updated May 7, 2024

Authorities believe that Naya Rivera used the last of her energy to push her four-year-old son Josey to safety on their boat before disappearing beneath the surface of California's Lake Piru on July 8, 2020.

Naya Rivera Death

Naya Rivera/InstagramNaya Rivera was just 33 years old when she drowned in California’s Lake Piru.

Naya Rivera’s death on July 8, 2020, shocked her friends, family, co-stars, and fans alike. The beloved actress drowned in Lake Piru near Santa Clarita, California, while swimming with her four-year-old son. Her body was recovered from the lake on July 13 following a five-day search.

Rivera, a regular cast member of the popular TV series Glee, was the third actor from the show to pass away young, sparking theories of a “Glee curse.” In fact, Rivera’s body was found on the anniversary of her co-star and close friend Cory Monteith’s death in 2013.

An investigation revealed that the 33-year-old died after jumping into the lake without a life jacket. In her final moments, Rivera mustered the last of her strength to push her child into a boat before she sank beneath the water.

After Naya Rivera’s death, Lake Piru permanently banned swimming, as the actress wasn’t the first person to drown in its deceivingly serene waters. Tragically, that ban came too late to save the young mother.

Naya Rivera’s Life As An Actress

Naya Marie Rivera was born on January 12, 1987, in Valencia, California, and grew up near Los Angeles. She was the oldest of three siblings: Her younger brother, Mychal Rivera, played in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars, while her younger sister, Nickayla Rivera, pursued a career as a runway model.

Rivera was a multi-talented American actress, singer, and model. Throughout her career, she received many awards, including a Screen Actors Guild Award. She was also nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Naya Rivera At Comic Con

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia CommonsNaya Rivera on a panel at Comic-Con in 2010.

The actress’s journey in the entertainment industry began at a young age. She landed her first role at just four years old when she portrayed Hillary Winston on the CBS sitcom The Royal Family from 1991 to 1992. She earned a Young Artist Award nomination at the age of five.

During her teenage years, Rivera played recurring television roles and had guest appearances in shows like Family Matters, The Bernie Mac Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Baywatch, Smart Guy, and Even Stevens.

However, it was her pivotal role as Santana Lopez on the Fox television series Glee from 2009 to 2015 that truly propelled her to stardom. Rivera’s portrayal of the popular cheerleader earned her several awards, including a SAG Award and an ALMA Award.

Cast Of Glee

AJ Pics / Alamy Stock PhotoNaya Rivera (far right) with other members of the Glee cast in 2009.

When Rivera was cast in Glee, she couldn’t have imagined the popularity and fame the show would garner. She once said she auditioned for the opportunity because it allowed her to follow all her passions — singing, dancing, and acting — in the same show.

Outside of her career as an actress, Naya Rivera was a loving mother to her son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, who was born on Sept. 17, 2015. She shared Josey with her ex-husband, Ryan Dorsey, to whom she was married from July 2014 to June 2018. The two of them split custody of Josey following their divorce.

It was during Rivera’s time with her son in July 2020 that the unthinkable happened.

The Death Of Naya Rivera

On July 8, 2020, Naya Rivera took four-year-old Josey to Lake Piru in Ventura County, a place she’d visited many times before. They arrived around 1 p.m. and rented a pontoon boat. Rivera was expected back at the dock at 4 p.m. — but she never arrived.

Staff members at the rental company headed out onto the lake to track Rivera down and came across the pontoon boat floating unanchored. Josey was asleep on board, wrapped in his towel and wearing a life jacket, but Rivera was nowhere to be found. Her life jacket was still on the boat.

Josey later told his grandmother that he and Rivera had counted “one, two, three” and jumped into Lake Piru shortly after leaving the dock. They had only been swimming for a brief time, however, when she told him to return to the boat.

Lake Piru Security Footage

Ventura County Sheriff’s OfficeVideo surveillance footage from Lake Piru shows Naya Rivera and her son, Josey, hours before her drowning death.

Josey said Rivera helped him climb back onto the vessel before waving her arms in the air and shouting, “Help!”

As reported by CNN in 2020, a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Ryan Dorsey on behalf of Josey stated: “Josey searched in vain for rope to help his mother get back on the boat. Josey then looked back at the water for his mother, and saw that Naya had disappeared. Josey yelled for help and cried alone in the boat until he was found more than an hour later.”

The boat rental company notified the police immediately, and search and rescue crews began scouring the lake with a dive team. After five days of exhaustive search efforts by divers and law enforcement, the actress’s body was recovered from the water on July 13, 2020, and sent to the medical examiner to determine exactly how Naya Rivera died.

How Did Naya Rivera Die?

According to the Associated Press, a report from the Ventura County Medical Examiner noted that Rivera “knew how to swim well” — so how did Naya Rivera die? What exactly happened that day on Lake Piru?

The medical examiner found caffeine, a therapeutic level of the appetite suppressant phentermine, and low levels of amphetamine and the anti-anxiety drug diazepam in Rivera’s system. The autopsy also showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.016 percent. However, none of this is believed to have contributed to her drowning.

Rivera did have a history of vertigo, which worsened whenever she was in the water. What’s more, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub noted that winds reached 21 miles per hour on the day of Naya Rivera’s death. He suggested that Rivera and her son might have been caught in a rip current as the unanchored boat blew away from them, and Rivera may have become exhausted while trying to swim back to the vessel.

Naya Rivera And Josey

Naya Rivera/InstagramThe last social media post ever made by Rivera, just one day before her death, was a loving photo of her with her son captioned, “just the two of us.”

“We believe that she mustered enough energy to get her son back on the boat, but not enough to save herself,” Ayub stated. Naya Rivera’s cause of death was officially listed as an accidental drowning.

After Naya Rivera’s death, her Glee co-stars paid tribute to the actress who had become their friend. “Rest sweet, Naya,” wrote Jane Lynch, who played Sue Sylvester on the show. “What a force you were.” Heather Morris, Rivera’s best friend in the series as well as in real life, called her the “strongest and most resilient human being.” The show’s creators even set up a college fund for Josey.

Sadly, Rivera wasn’t the first star of Glee to die young, leading many fans to believe that the show’s production was cursed.

Rumors Of A ‘Glee’ Curse

Naya Rivera’s death at the age of 33 marked the third loss of a major member of the Glee cast.

On July 13, 2013 — exactly seven years before Rivera’s body was pulled from Lake Piru — Cory Monteith, who played Finn Hudson on the show, died in a Vancouver hotel at age 31. He’d been scheduled to check out that morning, but when he failed to do so, a staff member entered his room around noon and found him dead.

Cory Monteith

Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia CommonsCory Monteith in 2011.

An autopsy showed that Monteith had died from “mixed drug toxicity” of heroin and alcohol that was seemingly accidental. He had abused drugs at several periods throughout his life and had even entered a rehabilitation facility just months before he died. Authorities believe that his tolerance was lower than he was used to due to his stint in rehab, so when he injected heroin the night of his death, the dose was simply too much for him to handle.

Then, on Jan. 30, 2018, Mark Salling, the actor who played Noah “Puck” Puckerman on Glee, died by suicide. He’d been arrested for possessing child pornography two years earlier, and he pleaded guilty in September 2017. He was set to be sentenced in March 2018, but he hanged himself in his Los Angeles home before the hearing. He was 35 years old.

Mark Salling

Kristin Dos Santos/Wikimedia CommonsMark Salling at a Glee premiere party in 2009.

Whether or not a “Glee curse” truly exists is up for debate, but Naya Rivera’s death certainly added to the unfortunate events surrounding the show. Perhaps the most tragic of all is Rivera’s son — who now lives with his father full-time — growing up without his mom.

In her memoir, Rivera lovingly referred to Josey as her “greatest success,” writing, “I will never do any better than him.” It’s not at all surprising, then, how Naya Rivera died making the ultimate sacrifice for her little boy.

After learning how Naya Rivera died, go inside the mysterious drowning of actress Natalie Wood. Then, read about nine famous deaths that shocked Hollywood.

Rivy Lyon
True crime expert Rivy Lyon holds a Bachelor's degree in criminology, psychology, and sociology. A former private investigator, she has also worked with CrimeStoppers, the Innocence Project, and disaster response agencies across the U.S. She transitioned into investigative journalism in 2020, focusing primarily on unsolved homicides and missing persons.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Lyon, Rivy. "The Heartbreaking Death Of Naya Rivera, The Beloved ‘Glee’ Star Who Drowned At Age 33.", April 17, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.