Mitchell won’t give up body of fisherman

Published 10:31 pm Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The temperature was about normal for January, in 1973. Two fishermen rented a boat for a day of fishing below Lay Dam.

Since the turbines were running, the fishermen went to the Coosa side, approximately one-half mile below the dam. While they were getting in position to anchor, the man in front threw out the anchor and went overboard, possibly getting entangled in the anchor line. The only witness was in the rear of the boat and said he saw the victim floating face down past the boat in the swift current.

The boat operator went back to the “fish camp” and reported it. Since we had a witness and could get a good location, we were able to have the Rescue Squad on the scene in a couple of hours.

For such a sad situation, everything pointed to a quick recovery. They were all experienced in working below the dam. We had all seen too many of these back in the early days, but none of us were prepared for what was to follow.

The witness was there almost daily as the search went on…and on. The operation was headquartered at Lavada’s Camp. The Power Company cooperated in opening floodgates at alternating times in hope of perhaps dislodging the body—still no luck.

The men were getting tired, and after a long period like this there is a lot of doubt and speculation. Do we have the right information? Do we even have a body? Lots of thoughts go through the minds of the exhausted workers.

After a couple of weeks, we decided to call off the dragging efforts and ride the lake downstream, looking for a body that should have surfaced a long time ago.

It was decided that we set up at Higgins Ferry and work towards the dam, searching the shorelines. Fewer and fewer workers were showing up, but always the boat operator and the victim’s wife would be there (together—that in itself raised some doubts).

I went on a Tourist Promotion Tour for the state and would be in Texas 10 days, thinking surely this unpleasant task of trying to locate the body would be over when I returned. It was not to be, as when I returned everybody had just about given up.

I talked to Sheriff T.J. Lockhart about all the gossip I was hearing. We decided to grill the witness a little. This fellow was cool—had a fixed grin on his face and told his story over and over. Grasping at every straw. T.J. suggested that he and the widow may be…well? He grinned and said, “Yes sir, we is friends,” and volunteered, “Real good friends!”

It was my turn. I asked, “You said he floated by you with his face under the water. He was you friend; why didn’t you grab him?” Get this, Mr. Cool looked at me and grinned, “And touch a dead man? Sh—!”

The 45-year-old’s body was found 5 1/2 miles below the dam by a fisherman, Ray Smitherman, 63 days after falling overboard. Nobody had ever heard of that then and not since.