By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
It has been nearly seven months since Berea Community School graduate Clarence Holmes, 32, went missing on Laurel Lake. His family is still searching for answers.
New information has been uncovered about that day in July, said Traca Wooton and Dena Newcomb, Holmes' aunts.
A couple came forward and said they were on the lake at the time of Holmes’ disappearance.
As soon as weather permits, the couple will ride out on the lake with London-Laurel Rescue Squad chief Larry Vanhook to go over what they saw that day — and what they didn’t see.
Facts are still unclear regarding the timeline of events.
Holmes had reportedly been helping friends tie down a houseboat in Twin Coves, one of the lake’s inlets located about a mile from the marina.
Sometime after 3 p.m., he departed Twin Coves on his father’s pontoon and headed toward the marina. The pontoon was later found abandoned and idling on a small sandy island in the middle of the main drag.
The couple told Newcomb they departed from Craig’s Creek, located on the other side of the marina. They were heading to Marsh Branch, another inlet located directly next to Twin Coves.
As they passed the sandy island, they did not see Holmes’ pontoon — neither stranded on the island or en route to the marina, Newcomb said.
Around 3:50 p.m., as they arrived in the area where Marsh Branch and Twin Coves meet, they had to stop their boat to put up their canopy because of the hail storm.
The couple remembered seeing the houseboats in Twin Coves, where Holmes had reportedly departed.
As they continued down Marsh Branch, they saw a shored pontoon on the right side of the cove, with several people standing around it. The couple can neither confirm nor deny that what they saw was Holmes’ pontoon, Newcomb said.
Even if the pontoon was not Holmes’, Wooton said, the people the couple saw on the shore would have been in seeing distance of Twin Coves around the time of Holmes’ disappearance.
The family would like to speak with the person who owns the shored pontoon or was there on that day, she said.
“Anyone could have taken pictures and not realize they might have captured a clue,” Wooton said. “Even if Clarence is not in a picture, the time imprint on the picture could match up with the storm logs at the weather station — the simplest thing might give us a key.”
Other things do not add up about her nephew's disappearance, Newcomb said.
Holmes’ phone contained a 30-second video of him shot en route to the marina. In the video, Holmes used the pontoon’s boot cover (a heavy duty cover that protects the canopy) to wrap up his belongings. He was wearing a straw hat owned by his brother Charles, she said. "But for some reason, he decided to wear that hat that day."
In the video, you see the boot cover tucked in underneath his backpack, she said.
When the pontoon was found later, the boot cover was missing and his belongings were laid out “as if you were to place them there,” she said. His straw hat was found on the seat next to a pack of cigarettes. The boat’s canopy had never been put up.
Why were these items not scattered about when there were reports of 50 to 60 mile per hour gusts of wind, the family wondered.
The missing boot cover has never been recovered. The family conducted an experiment on their own and tried to sink a similar boot cover, but it kept floating to the top, Newcomb said.
“We want to look at everything from the beginning,” Wooton said. “We don’t want to just assume he drowned and never find him. We want every possibility looked at.”
Searching the deep
At the time of Holmes’ disappearance, search and rescue teams from Pulaski, Boone and Laurel counties, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Forestry department, began searching the lake and the surrounding terrain.
With underwater cameras and divers, the rescue teams searched areas where Holmes’ body would likely be found, said Chief Vanhook.
The family contacted Gene Ralston, who developed side scan sonar, a technology he used to successfully locate drowning victims.
Ralston searched the lake for three days, but with no success.
Unlike a river, deep areas of the lake are likely to remain undisturbed, Vanhook 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, Wooton said.
“If you can close your eyes and imagine that you were over top of a forest and someone was down in between all those trees,” Vanhook said. “Even with the sophisticated equipment we have today, trying to pinpoint someone among several acres of forest land is difficult.”
Just recently, Laurel County was awarded a grant through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to purchase its own side scan sonar equipment that can search areas 300 to 400 feet below the surface.
“I think the Holmes case helped us get the grant because we have had to call in so much help (from neighboring counties),” Vanhook said. He applied for the grant in the past, which he said is necessary for a county that has two lakes.
The rescue team will conduct training exercises with the new equipment sometime in early March, the chief said.
In the meantime, the team has been studying underwater images to get a better idea of what they should look for when they begin to use the equipment.
Vanhook is optimistic about the continued search for Holmes, he said.
“Once we get trained on the equipment, we will be able to spend a lot more time on the lake. We can just keep working and working — and we will do that,” he said. “But we must have a game plan.”
Even if the team were to locate something suspicious, local divers can only reach depths of 100 feet, Vanhook said. They would have to request the use of Boone County’s underwater robot to retrieve items at greater depths.
Any new information that comes forward about Holmes’ disappearance could help them locate better areas to search, Vanhook said.
“I don’t care if it’s my family — or whoever. We’ll be out there searching just like they are my family,” the chief said.
Anyone who was at Laurel Lake on July 5, 2012 or may have information to help in the search for Clarence Holmes, call Chief Larry Vanhook at (606) 682-3353.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.