In the area I live in there’s a lake, also known as the largest man-made, freshwater lake in North Carolina. But before it became Lake Norman, the area was a village containing textile mills, homes, and family farms called Long Island. According to the Visit Mooresville website, in the early 1900s, James Buchanan Duke and his successors at Duke Power began purchasing land from farmers around the Catawba and Wateree Rivers in preparation for a dam. After the Cowans Ford Dam project was completed in the late 1950s, work began on filling the lake portion. During that process, the homes, bridges, mills, camps, cemeteries, schools, churches, stores, and even a famous battleground from the Revolutionary War became submerged underwater. Because I know what is underneath the lake, and how deep it is, I’m never surprised when I hear about swimmers and boaters going missing on the lake, and it happens all throughout each year. Last summer, search and rescue crews performed an extensive search and located a 30-year-old man who had jumped off a boat without a life jacket. His remains were recovered 81 feet underneath the water.
In Episode 15, I discussed the case of Dianne Gabriel, a real estate agent who went missing after visiting a home she thought was going up for sale on Lake Norman. A man was convicted in her death, although her remains were never found. Authorities suspected the lake played a role in hiding her remains. The water from lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans holds many secrets. Sometimes, they decide to share those secrets of people who go missing, and often, their loved ones don’t even know a body of water factored into a disappearance.
I first began thinking about this episode topic after reading how an Auburn University student who went missing in 1976 was finally found in 2021, along with his submerged car, in a creek in Chambers County, Alabama. He was last seen leaving the Moose Club lodge LaGrange, Georgia where he worked before heading back to college. Over the years, there were many theories about what happened to this young man, Kyle Clinkscales, with one man even giving a false confession of murdering the student. His skeletal remains and other belongings were found inside his 1974 Ford Pinto in December of 2021. Because he had been in the water for so long, authorities have said they may never know an exact cause of death or how Clinkscales car ended up in that creek.
Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel
There was a similar case in another southern state. On April 3, 2000, Sparta, Tennessee residents 18-year-old Erin Foster and 17-year-old Jeremy Bechtel drove away from Foster’s home in her black 1988 Pontiac Grand Am. They attended a party. After that, what happened to them remained a mystery. According to news articles that ran in the Knoxville-News, numerous theories and speculation swirled around town. The pair had stumbled onto something criminal and been silenced because of it. There was a drug deal that had gone wrong. Someone murdered them out of jealousy. They ran away together. Their car had been in an accident and was submerged in a body of water. Bechtel’s mother didn’t believe the runaway theory. She said both teenagers had left all their personal belongings behind and still had paychecks they hadn’t collected at their jobs. In 2005 and 2006, investigators even traveled to Pensacola, Florida, after receiving reports of a young woman who resembled Foster working there.
In late 2021, a 42-year-old YouTuber named Jeremy Sides decided to see if he could help locate the missing couple. Sides creates videos on his “Exploring with Nug” YouTube channel where he uses sonar technology and underwater dives to collect evidence in missing persons cases. Working with the local law enforcement in White County, Sides narrowed down a few different bodies of water where Erin Foster’s car could be. The Calfkiller River, which ran along the road next to Foster’s home, turned out to be the place that held the secret of where Foster and Bechtel had been for more than 20 years. At the time, there had been no guardrail in place to protect a car going off the road. Foster’s car was only a few feet from the road, but had settled into more than twelve feet of murky water. The authorities had always focused on searching for the couple on the other end of the county where the party had taken place. The remains of both Foster and Bechtel were located inside the car and identified through dental records. Authorities ruled out foul play in the case.
Jake Ziegler and Raymond Pierce
Water was also involved in another Carolinas case that took place back in 2012, but the missing teens and their car were found after a few weeks with the help of cell phone technology, and the fact that the young men had told their friends of the intended route they planned to drive. Eighteen-year-old Jake Ziegler and 17-year-old Raymond Pierce, who both resided in Catawba County, attended a party in Sherrill’s Ford on the night of October 13. They said they wanted to make the four-hour drive to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to watch the sun rise. Their families reported them missing the next day when they couldn’t get reach the teens. They received a tip from a psychic that Zeigler and Pierce could be found in Myrtle Beach, alive, where their car, a green 2006 Pontic G6, had ended up in a ditch in a desolate area. Several different searches were organized in two different areas of South Carolina. Investigators were able to determine one of the teens had sent a text message around 2:45 a.m. during the drive, and the phone was in use on I-77 about 35 miles north of Columbia. Deputies used four-wheelers and helicopters to search a corridor along the interstate.
On October 29, 2012, search crews with the Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons noticed what looked like a car bumper along the Wateree River on I-20. The teens were found deceased in the car. Authorities believed the car went off the left-hand side of the road, narrowly missed a guard rail, and rolled down a steep embankment and into Buck Creek. There were no skid marks on the road, and if the car bumper hadn’t been left at the edge of the creek, the car and the two teens might never have been found.
There have also been recent developments in another missing persons case in my area, and it includes the discovery of a submerged car in Lake Norman. According to information found on The Charley Project website, 43-year-old Tina Martin was last seen leaving her home in Newton, North Carolina on February 12, 2008. She was driving her white Ford Thunderbird. Later that morning, she called her family and said she had lost her job. She never returned home.
On February 6 of this year, a fisherman on Lake Norman was using a sonar device to detect fish, when he noticed an object underwater that appeared to be a car. He notified the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office. The Sherrills Ford Terrell Fire Rescue used a submersible robot to confirm a vehicle was underwater, and a diver confirmed the car matched the description of the car Martin was driving when she went missing. A few days later, a crew removed the vehicle from the water near a bridge over the Mountain Creek area of Lake Norman. The water was approximately 26 feet deep. The Charley Project entry on 43-year-old Tina Martin noted that the guardrails currently in place in the area where her car was found were not in place at the time of her disappearance. Human remains were found inside the car, and the investigators said they are in contact with the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and will work to have a DNA analysis of the remains complete to help give Martin’s family closure. For now, Tina Martin is still officially listed as a missing person.
On January 26 of this year, 22-year-old South Carolina resident Tyler Doyle went duck hunting off the coast of North Myrtle Beach with a friend in a 16-foot jon boat and has been missing ever since. It was a rough day on the water and there was a small craft advisory out that afternoon. He dropped his friend off at the north jetty on the Intracoastal Waterway and traveled further out in the boat to put out some duck decoys, staying in contact by phone. The friend lost sight of Doyle as he went around the south jetty. Not long after, Doyle called the friend to say the boat was having mechanical issues and had begun taking on water. His friend flagged down a passing boat, which attempted to get to Doyle’s location, but it had to return to shore because of the worsening weather conditions.
A 911 call prompted a multi-agency search that included the North Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard, along with a boat from the Horry County Fire Rescue that arrived on the scene within nine minutes of being dispatched. They found Tyler Doyle’s boat submerged, with the bow up and the motor down, with only a foot of the boat showing above water. At the time of the incident, the water temperature was 50 degrees, and the air temperature 39 degrees. A few days later, on January 31, Doyle’s waders and wallet were found off the North Carolina coast.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources issued a press release saying that based on cell phone records, data location information, witness interviews, a boat inspection and recovered items indicated this to be a boating and hunting accident, with no foul play suspected. They cited weather conditions and boating mechanical issues as the predominant contributing factors.
For the past month, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Brunswick County North Carolina Sheriff’s Office and a Wisconsin-based nonprofit called Wings of Hope have continued to search for any sign of Tyler Doyle. On February 27, Wings of Hope, which had provided sonar, drones, and K-9 units, announced that they had made the difficult decision of discontinuing their search for Doyle. For now, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Civil Air Patrol are continuing their search as long as weather conditions allow.
Doyle and his wife Lakelyn were expecting a daughter to be born later this spring. Anyone with information about Tyler Doyle’s case is asked to call the Coast Guard at 305-415-6800.
Joseph Matthew Johnson
On November 22, 2021, 44-year-old Joseph Matthew Johnson, a Carolina Beach resident, was seen leaving Federal Point Yacht Club on his 19-foot SeaCraft Center Console fishing boat around 11 a.m. He resided on a larger boat which remained docked at the club. Because he lived alone, no one noticed right away when he didn’t return. Before he left, he’d asked a few different friends if they wanted to go out on his boat fishing with him that day, but all were busy due to the Thanksgiving holiday so he went out alone.
On November 27, a friend of Johnson’s who had previously made plans to fish with, realized his boat wasn’t at Federal Point. He made a few calls and realized Johnson must have been gone for several days, and reported him missing to the local authorities.
His brother told authorities he’d had a pre-arranged phone call with his brother scheduled for the day he went fishing, so Johnson had planned to return that evening. There was also food set out in the kitchen for his dinner that night.
The Wilmington Star News reported that police discovered Johnson had recently purchased equipment to repair the motor on his boat, they presumed he got the boat in working condition, headed out for his day trip, and possibly had engine trouble while out on the water.
The U.S. Coast Guard conducted a search for Johnson that used five different vessels and covered nearly 7,500 square miles. They noticed his cell phone stopped pinging around 5:15 p.m., when he was near Bald Head Island, an area he favored for fishing. The search was suspended after three days when no signs of Johnson, or his boat, were found.
His friend that reported him missing, fellow Army buddy Stan Cook, said this case was a reminder that you should never leave and go out fishing without letting someone know where you’re going and when you should be back.”
Seven months after Joseph disappeared, his boat was found on an island about 900 miles off the coast of Portugal, and more than 2,800 miles from Carolina Beach. He was not on board, and the boat had a heavy buildup of barnacles and algae, indicating it had been capsized at sea for quite awhile. According to Namus, Porguguese officials conducted an examination of the boat and a search of the area and were unable to locate Johnson or get any clues to his whereabouts.
In an article that ran in the Wilmington Star News right after Johnson’s boat was found, his mother said that she and the rest of the family remained confident he will be found alive. At the time he went missing, Johnson was a retired U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who served with tours in Afghanistan and South America. His family believed his training provided him with the skills he would need to survive tumultuous elements and other dangerous conditions. “It’s not just hope,” she said. “We know he’s alive and are praying for his miraculous rescue.”
At the time of his disappearance, Joseph Matthew Johnson stood six feet two inches tall, had strawberry blonde hair, and weighed around 215 to 222 pounds. He was wearing a black t-shirt, black shorts, and a black baseball cap. Anyone with information about this case is asked to call the Carolina Beach Department at 910-458-2540.
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WOW! Women on Writing
Erin Foster and Jeremy Bechtel
Jake Ziegler and Ray Pierce
Search for Teens Widens in S.C.
Search for Teens Continues in S.C.
Joseph Matthew Johnson