PONCE DE LEON
The sky opened, and the rain fell in sheets on the clearwater spring, on the backs of the cadaver dogs searching the banks, on the tin roof above Shelby and Patty McDaniel, in town from Memphis to try once more to find their son, Ben.
Nineteen months he's been missing.
Nineteen months since their oldest boy, 30 at the time, was last seen, after dark, swimming toward the mouth of the cave at the bottom of the spring before them, toward the rebar gate and the sign that said: GO NO FARTHER. THERE'S NOTHING IN THIS CAVE WORTH DYING FOR.
Life is different in the swirl. They won't touch his room. They listen to the music on his iMac and cry. Every question leads to another.
Divers tell them he's not in the cave, couldn't be, for there would be signs. Underwater wildlife near his remains. Scuba equipment or extra air tanks. Marks on the limestone ceiling at the tightest restriction, where his helmet would have scraped as he tried to squeeze through a 14-inch gap, like crawling under a car, underwater.
The police tell them there is no indication he came out of the water. They found his GMC pickup in the parking lot. Found nearly $1,000 in his wallet. Found no cellphone, credit card or online activity since the day he disappeared.
The last entry on the police report, in the dry parlance of the Holmes County Sheriff's Office: "Investigation Continued."
Shelby McDaniel said he and his wife can't keep this up. They had steadily increased the reward for information on Ben's whereabouts to $30,000. They'd hired a private investigator. They'd advertised for weeks in local newspapers. No calls came in to the 800 number they set up.
This is what it has come to, then. Bloodhounds on the banks and two tired parents watching in silence. One last search.
Friday morning. A team of dogs from Florida had worked the area around the spring, in the Panhandle, and not one of them showed any sign it recognized a scent. Another team was on its way from Louisiana.
Shelby McDaniel, 69, walked to his truck and fetched a small granite slab with an engraving on the front.
BELOVED SON AND BROTHER
"This is what we had made up," Shelby said.
"We don't know whether he's in there or not," said Patty. "But we had to leave something."
She motioned to Eduardo Taran, who has worked at Vortex Spring for years and was the last person to see her son alive, on Aug. 18, 2010, as Ben swam toward the cave.
"We had this made, and we thought that maybe you could take it down there for us," Patty told him.
"Very nice," Taran said. "I will look for a nice place where I know he would like it." Taran showed her a map of the cave. He pointed to an underwater room deep inside the cave.
"We're going to name this Ben's Room," he said.
Patty began to cry. Eduardo looked at the granite slab.
"I'm going to take it down tomorrow morning," he said.
• • •
Ben had come to Florida to dive.
He loved the water from the time he was a boy chasing fish in the shallows. He was the oldest of the McDaniels' three boys. He held Patty's hand in public until the sixth grade and learned how to play The Old Rugged Cross on the piano and sang it for her at Christmas. Patty used to check Ben out of school so they could spend time together. They ate dinner as a family and took vacations to climb rocks in Arkansas or sunbathe on the beach in Destin.
Shelby and Patty last saw Ben in Memphis a few days before he went missing. He was loving his Florida sabbatical, they said, after a rough patch back home in which his construction business had failed and his younger brother had died.
Now he was diving at every opportunity and trying to land a job as an instructor. He was mapping the cave at Vortex.
They can't think of any reason he would run away, nor can they think of any enemies who would cause Ben harm. What's left are a thousand questions.
• • •
Before noon, a caravan of cars and SUVs with Louisiana plates pulled into Vortex Spring, past the dive shop and cabins, and parked near the water's edge. A small man wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap emerged from the lead car, stretched and knocked a cigarette out of a pack as Patty McDaniel approached.
"Are you David?" Patty asked.
"Yes," the man said.
"I'm Patty McDaniel."
"Thank you for being here."
"It's our honor."
David Twist, 66, commander of the HELP! Search and Rescue Dog Team, had volunteered to try to find Ben. He said he was born in the Everglades and served with the Army and has a long history of training dogs. The wet weather wouldn't be a problem.
Twist introduced himself to Capt. Harry Hamilton, who has led the investigation for the Holmes County Sheriff's Office.
"Captain," Twist said, "we're going to set up a grid and survey the area, all of it. Because of the conditions, my dogs will have to be on top of it to react, so we intend to search the whole darn thing."
The handlers with him unloaded their dogs from crates. German shepherds and bloodhounds and Rottweilers. A few of them walked the dogs down to the water's edge, then began working east and south. They slogged through the swamps and dense woods and disappeared.
The McDaniels had developed a theory, and Hamilton agreed it should be explored. One of the last people to see Ben was Lowell Kelly, owner of Vortex Spring. Kelly had told investigators that the night Ben went missing, a man, wild-eyed and about 35, showed up at the dive shop after sundown looking inebriated. He asked if it was too late to go diving. Kelly thought it was strange.
But Kelly himself was a curious character. A year before, a man showed up at the Sheriff's Office and told deputies that Kelly had driven him to the gator pond, an isolated spot near Vortex Spring, and attacked him with a baseball bat. The man said Kelly accused him of stealing $30,000. The man feared for his life and was able to escape into the woods. Kelly was charged with aggravated battery and sentenced to seven years of probation. The man was still so frightened he moved his family out of town and swore he'd never return.
Loud and often vulgar, Kelly shared his theories about Ben's disappearance with this reporter several times. He speculated that Ben had planned his own disappearance and was living in the Cayman Islands. He had no evidence to support the claim.
Kelly died in December under mysterious circumstances. According to a sheriff's report, he had been drinking moonshine at a party at Vortex Spring and as a friend assisted him home, Kelly fell and hit his head. The friend left Kelly in a bathtub overnight. Kelly never regained consciousness and died several days later. The Sheriff's Office is still investigating his death, Hamilton said.
If Kelly had something to do with Ben's disappearance, the McDaniels wanted to scour the area for clues. They asked Twist to let his dogs sniff around the gator pond. The dogs found nothing.
• • •
Twist wanted to check the spring one last time. Hamilton pointed out an above-ground pipe that led deep into the earth, into a large underwater cavern. If Ben, clad in a wet suit and mask, were still decomposing 19 months later in some cold, dark recess in the cave, perhaps the dogs would pick up a scent wafting up through the pipe.
"Captain?" Twist said.
"Sir," said Hamilton.
"You ever smell decomp?" Twist asked.
"Yes, I have," Hamilton said.
Twist fetched a zip-lock bag from his truck and held it up to Hamilton's nose.
"That's good decomp," Twist said. "I'm going to scent the dogs and send them back over there."
One by one, he held the putrid bag to the dogs and dispatched them to the pipe. But they showed no signs of detecting anything.
"I think we've been looking in the right place," Twist said. "I don't think he's in the cave."
• • •
As the day dragged on, the McDaniels began to lose hope.
"This is going to be hard," Shelby said, "going back home empty-handed."
They clung to the few positives of this experience. They're able to help people at church through their grief, because they know the ups and downs better than many. They talk to people about organ donation. They appreciate time with their remaining son and their grandchild.
They are changed.
"We used to have goals," Patty said, at a picnic table near the spring. "None of that anymore. You just live day to day."
"The past year and a half we've just been reliving the whole thing again and again," Shelby said. "We were hoping this time for a measure of closure so that we can move forward."
"There can't be closure when we don't know anything," Patty said. "Maybe that's our new reality. That there are no answers."
The sky was growing dark and the handlers were bringing the dogs back in from the woods. A stillness settled over the spring and the rain had tapered off. When he realized the operation was over, Hamilton hung his head.
"The only thing we can do is keep trying," he told the McDaniels. "And keep an open mind."
"We've done everything that we can," said Patty.
Shelby thanked Twist and the handlers and their dogs, tired now, lying around on the wet grass.
"Life has to go on," Shelby said to no one in particular.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.