By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
It has been almost nine days since Clarence Holmes, 32, was last seen on his pontoon. After a storm hit the area, Holmes’ boat was found idling unoccupied next to a sandy beach near Holly Bay Marina at Laurel Lake.
For Holmes’ friends and family, the ordeal has been “frustrating and a never-ending nightmare,” said his aunt Traca Wooten.
Family members are desperate for answers, she said.
Search and rescue teams from Pulaski and Laurel counties, as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forestry departments, have all been working the case, said Larry Vanhook, London-Laurel County Rescue chief.
A team from Madison County was there Wednesday and a team from Boone County are scheduled to join next week to ensure nothing was missed, Vanhook said Friday morning.
The London-Laurel County squad will be on the lake this weekend with side sonar technology, cameras and divers, the chief said. “I want to use every sophisticated piece of equipment I can get my hands on.”
Vanhook said they would continue searching “however long it takes” to exhaust every option.
“We have to feel confidant, beyond a shadow of a doubt and 150 percent that Clarence is not in that lake,” he said. “We’re not quitting.”
Investigators from the U.S. departments are in the process of collecting a recap of witness testimonies, he said, as well as reassessing the locations where Holmes would likely be found.
Vanhook recalled an incident several years ago when a search for a drowning victim continued for 9 days, but with “better information,” they were able to pinpoint the exact location of the body and recover it immediately.
Unlike a river, deep areas of the lake are likely to remain undisturbed, he said, so a drowning victim would stay in the same area where they first entered the water.
The 5,600-acre lake, constructed in 1964 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was essentially a “backwood holler” that was dammed, said Traca Wooten.
“We heard there are barns, building and timbers standing underwater like a forest,” said Wooten, making the search for her nephew more difficult.
The frustration builds for the family, which has explored various avenues while they feel local efforts to find their loved one have dwindled.
The family has contacted a diver in Montana; a search dog team in Tennessee; and a sonar search team in Utah.
Rumors persist around the lake that seven people allegedly have drowned over the years and were never found at Laurel Lake. Wooten questioned why there is not a better statewide effort and system in place for finding people “in a lake so dangerous.”
Friday morning, the family reached out to Attorney General Jack Conway’s office, where they were transferred to the criminal justice department, Wooten said.
There, Wooten was told the case was “outside their jurisdiction and that there was nothing they could do.”
“If that was their son out there, what would they do?” Wooten said. “We’re not leaving until we find him.”
But Vanhook insisted he shares the same thoughts.
“If it were mine, I would be doing the same thing,” the chief said. “But we have to take the time to plan this, make sure no one is running over top of each other and unintentionally destroying evidence in the process.”
As for the rumors of seven people missing in the lake: Unless they were never reported, Vanhook knows of only one person who was not found and went missing in the late ’70s, said the chief, a member of the rescue squad for the past 37 years.
“If six other people are in there, I don’t know about them,” he said.
Since Holmes went missing July 5, search and rescue teams have utilized side sonar technology, used cameras to take 2-by-4 foot pictures of the bottom of the lake and have sent divers to depths of around 100 feet, Vanhook said.
Cadaver dogs “hit” on areas in the lake, identifying certain “points of interest,” the chief said, but they could be picking up a scent from an area up to 30 feet away.
Windy weather shakes the cameras, making the whole procedure more difficult in those conditions.
Dog teams in the forest surrounding the lake have been unsuccessful and officials plan to concentrate efforts on the lake, Vanhook said.
If Holmes had made it to shore, he said, his knowledge of the area would make him inclined to stay there since the lake is busy with visitors every day.
The lake’s number of visitors also may affect the search, he said. If Holmes’ body were to float to the surface, passing boats or water equipment can push him back down.
Rescuers have been doing their best to keep boaters out of the areas they are currently searching, the chief said.
Vanhook said they need rescue teams and volunteers who have sonar technology, cameras and dive equipment, as well as drags to comb the shallow areas.
He asked that the teams contact him at (606) 864-2922 or (606) 682-3353 to better organize the efforts.
How you can help
As young as 14 years old, Holmes knew he wanted to “flip houses” one day, said Wooten, who was a real estate agent at the time and constantly answered her nephew’s questions about the business.
Holmes bought his first house in 2006 and soon turned that into 10 houses.
“He was a landlord and an entrepreneur,” said his brother Charles Holmes, who lives just miles from Clarence’s home in Winchester.
Clarence made good enough money to spend most of his time on Laurel Lake, his aunt said.
“He loved life and he loved to have fun. The lake was his paradise,” she said.
She remembered Clarence often said, “The view I love the most is my front porch looking in” — a lyric from a song by country band Lonestar.
A group keeps a vigil on the family’s houseboat, which has been docked at Holly Bay Marina the past eight years.
Arnold Holmes, Clarence’s father, constantly searches the lake using the pontoon his son was last seen driving.
“Arnold hasn’t given up hope,” according to Wooten, who said they are hoping to find her nephew in the woods or as a “John Doe” at a hospital somewhere.
Clarence’s close family and childhood best friend Ozzie Combs and his family remain at the marina. Keeping the group fed and funding the search is a way community members can help the family, Wooten said.
Wooten travels to her home in Richmond to take care of her two teenage sons (one of whom is named Clarence), and returns to the lake to keep the family stocked with necessities.
Those who would like to donate meals to the family can email Wooten via the “Come Home Clarence” Facebook page.
Monetary donations can be made at www.eastkyusssa.com. Ryan Sizemore, Clarence’s accountant and fellow Berea Community graduate, will be setting up an account that can transfer the money to the family quicker.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.