Dive teams halt search efforts for missing teen on Lake Lanier



HALL COUNTY, GA. - Dive teams looking for a 13-year-old boy who fell off a boat after a fatal wreck, have wrapped up their search for the evening.

They will return to the water Wednesday morning to continue to look for the teen.

Meanwhile, Department of Natural Resources investigators are scouring the shores of Lake Lanier to find the missing 13-year-old.

The teen's 9-year-old brother died in the incident. They were part of a 13-person group on a pontoon boat struck by a fishing boat Monday night.

Investigators said the fishing boat driver, Paul Bennett, 44, of Cumming, took off. Police later arrested him Tuesday morning.

Police told Channel 2's Dave Huddleston the evening was supposed to be a night of fun on the lake for the victim's family and their friends, but investigators said Bennett was boating while drunk and crashed into the pontoon killing the 9-year-old instantly and throwing the 13-year-old into the water. The crash left the side of the pontoon boat mangled.

Police said Bennett didn't stick around to help.

"At approximately 1:30 this morning, the rangers located the vessel that was involved in the collision in a marina on the lake," Maj. Stephen Adams with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said.

Investigators found Bennett and took him into custody after questioning.

"He was arrested and transported to the Hall County Detention Center under the charge of boating under the influence," Adams said.

Five others were injured and treated at the hospital. The 13-year-old is still missing and presumed dead.

"We have our side scan sonar deployed in the area where the collision occurred and we're assisted by Hall County Sheriff Office divers," Adams said.

In all, five different agencies are involved in the search.


DNR searches boat for clues

Channel 2's Jeff Dore was with investigators as they searched the pontoon boat involved in the wreck for clues Tuesday afternoon.

Department of Natural Resources investigators climbed aboard the mangled remains of the triple-pontoon boat to try and gain some insight into the fatal wreck.

DNR officials told Dore the boat is a 26-foot Avalon Paradise that had 13 people on board and that the boat was "actually rated for 17 persons," according to Maj. Stephen Adams with the Department of Natural Resources.

So the number of passengers was safe. The people on board included two sets of parents, and children from two other families, on a night cruise.

"This is not an unusual occurrence to see people out just enjoying the beautiful weather," Adams said.

Dore was there as investigators took minute measurements of the pontoon boat.

Preliminary findings indicate the two boats collided nearly head-on, the impact ripping the pontoon boat apart.

"There's some structural aluminum that's been bent, there's plywood. It did have a significant amount of damage to it," Adams said.

Adams told Dore that after the DNR critical incident reconstruction team finishes its investigation, it will turn the results over to the district attorney to decide whether to file any more charges.


Boat driver bonds out of jail

Paul Bennett, the man charged with boating under the influence in a deadly Lake Lanier crash, bonded out of the Hall County Jail Tuesday afternoon.  Bennett declined to talk to reporters, instead darting out of the jail into a waiting car. 

He also declined to talk outside a bonding company as he again darted into a waiting car and drove away.

Records show the 44-year-old Bennett owned Paul Bennett Studios, a hair salon in Johns Creek and lived in a home in Cumming, though neighbors told Channel 2's Richard Elliot that he and his wife and daughter had recently moved out of the home. 

They said Bennett was living on a boat at Bald Ridge Marina, the same marina where DNR rangers arrested him early Tuesday morning.

Court documents show Bennett filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and had two state tax liens against him, the latest in 2010.



Family awaits news on missing boy

As two dozen divers geared up to continue their search of Lake Lanier for the missing 13-year-old boy, his uncle, a Suwanee police officer, looked on anxiously waiting for any word.

"He's holding up fairly well considering the circumstances, but he's obviously distraught," Sgt. Steve Wilbanks with the Hall County Sheriff's Office told Channel 2's Aaron Diamant.

The uncle said he was too distraught to speak on camera. The agencies involved in the recovery effort welcomed him at the scene as a professional courtesy.

"We can relate to him on a professional level, and to see what he's going through, it's obviously difficult for him," Wilbanks said.

Meantime, officials said both boys' parents, who were also involved in the crash, have left the area and are staying with relatives until the search is over.

"He's in contact with them. They're not staying close to the scene and they're awaiting word from him on the outcome of the search," Wilbanks said.

Divers said the search could last for days given the treacherous conditions they face underwater.

"It is one of the most dangerous, if not most dangerous operations that we can deploy into," said Maj. Woodrow Tripp with the Hall County Sheriff's Office. "Regardless of who it is, we're gonna do this, and we're gonna basically do it the same way, but we're definitely going to be here until we can't anymore."

Emergency crews said they will concentrate on the shore around Lake Lanier throughout the evening Tuesday, scouring the edge of the lake for any signs of the teen.


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