Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Search continues for two Plant City boaters missing on Lake Tarpon

A search for two close friends from Plant City who went missing Saturday night while fishing on Lake Tarpon will resume this morning, authorities said.

Willie Ragins, 43, and Willie Hightower, 64, spent Saturday afternoon fishing the lake in a 14-foot aluminum boat, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

They were last heard from around 10 p.m. Saturday when Ragins' daughter called his cellphone to check on him.

Ragins said he would be back in a couple of hours, and his daughter fell asleep.

When she awoke Sunday morning, he still wasn't home.

Deputies began searching for the men around noon Sunday but were unable to locate them. The Sheriff's Office says it used helicopters, sonar and boats to look for the missing men.

But the search was called off amid the rainy weather because of low visibility as the sun set.

Lake Tarpon is 2,500 sprawling acres of water, located on the borders of Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs. It is the largest lake in Pinellas County.

Ragins' family said he goes fishing there every week, and that Hightower is one of his best friends. The men usually set out in the late afternoon, but family members said they're typically home the same night.

Saretha Ragins, Willie Ragins' mother, said rescuers found two coolers, a tackle box and a life jacket on Sunday. They also found a vehicle and boat trailer, but still no sign of her son.

Ragins is an auto mechanic, his mother said, and father of four children.

The family had been at the lake since 2 p.m.

"We'll spend the night if we have to," Saretha Ragins said.

Hightower's neighbor, William Robinson Jr., said Hightower has been interested in fishing ever since he was a child. Often, Hightower would go on overnight fishing trips with friends, Robinson said.

"They always got a habit of going out and staying out at night and coming back the next day," Robinson said. "But if they didn't find the boat, then something went wrong. This ain't never come up before."

Rescuers have been called to Lake Tarpon several times in the last several years.

In July 2010, rescue crews found the body of a Hillsborough County man who had apparently fallen overboard.

In September 2009, a 65-year-old boater was critically injured when his speed boat, traveling at more than 70 mph, flipped and went airborne.

And in April 2008, a 21-year-old woman died on the lake after the boat she was riding in collided with another vessel at anchor. A jury later found a friend of hers guilty of manslaughter for boating under the influence.

Deputies said the search will resume at first light in the morning. They asked boaters and visitors in the area to call the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office should they have any leads.

Staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.

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