Posted by: Josh Hinkle | December 27, 2010

They Say You’re a Man With True Grit

Josh and Pawpaw

When you call my grandparents’ house in Amarillo, the answering machine still sounds, “This is the Smith residence. Leave a message, and we MIGHT call you back.” Even now, nearly a year since my Pawpaw passed away, his sarcastic, gruff voice still makes me laugh. During that same time, I waited for one movie in particular. True Grit.

I covered the filming of this western re-make in central Texas for KXAN. It was one of the last topics my Pawpaw and I discussed. Last Christmas, we sat in his living room, chatting about his affection for John Wayne. The original True Grit won the Duke an Academy Award in 1969, so Pawpaw was particularly interested in this conversation. It was quite unusual for him to be so talkative about anything. Even before his illness, he was not the most expressive man.

Movie poster at Carmike Cinema in Shawnee, OK

Mumbling through many of his words and cutting the dialogue short were common traits with Pawpaw. What he would say was often edgy and full of wit. As a child, I remember him calling people who irritated him a “suck-egg mule.” And, to go along with his seemingly rugged demur, in response to someone’s “I love you,” he would spit out “Same to ya!” We really knew what he meant. It was just all part of the character Joe Smith had built for himself.

That character came back up the following Christmas, our first without him. After our chat and my television coverage of True Grit, I was definitely looking forward to its release on that holiday. The original had aired just a few days before, and I downloaded the audio book by Charles Portis for the drive back to Oklahoma.

My parents were also anticipating the movie. We bought our tickets beforehand for the little theater in Shawnee, waiting in line outside in the biting cold to enter. The theater was packed, and we had to separate to secure seats. Mom and Dad sat in one row next to each other, and I sat in the row just in front of them. Mom kept messing up my hair and asking if I was okay up there all alone.

Audio book download from iTunes

After a few minutes of sitting in the darkness with a restless crowd of movie-goers, the theater manager entered, and the lights came on. Apparently, there was a problem with the bulb in the theater projector, a problem that was unable to be fixed any time soon. Refunds were available, and there was always the possibility of tomorrow’s showing. Surprisingly, I wasn’t upset. Another day wouldn’t hurt.

The theater was considerably less crowded the day after Christmas. Mom, Dad, and I were able to share a bag of popcorn, as we were all sitting together on round two. An older man approached my left and asked if the two seats beside me were taken. I indicated they were available, so he and a little boy I assumed was his grandson sat down. It made me smile a bit, thinking about watching the movie that gave my Pawpaw and me one of the best conversations we’d ever had. It was a noteworthy breakthrough in communication and certainly a special final memory of one’s grandfather.

Movie poster at Shawnee theater

Throughout the movie, I was struck by how much Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn reminded me of Pawpaw. The sharp dialogue. The masked emotion. The subtle humor. It was like a little bit of Joe Smith was alive right there on the screen. Perhaps I was wanting such a coincidence too much because of my closeness to the subject.

The movie was exceptional, one of the best I had seen in a long time. Seeing Granger and Blanco, Texas, was awesome. It was truly worth the wait, even that additional day. As we left the theater, I noticed my parents were not standing beside me. I turned back to see Mom wiping some tears from her eyes. Dad put his hand on her shoulder, and I noticed his bottom lip shaking slightly. Mom looked at me and said, “Sorry. It’s just…it reminded me of Dad so much.” I smiled as we passed the movie poster with Bridge’s photo on the way out. “Same to ya, Pawpaw.”

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | July 11, 2010

A Stitch In Time

The smell welcomed me immediately, as I stepped into the old, brick house on the hill. My Granny, Faye Hinkle, knew how to cook, but my favorite was definitely her fried okra. Breading perfection. Chopped to a slight hash. And a singe of blackened crust. Each time I visited my grandparents’ ranch outside Wynnewood, Oklahoma, I knew I could count on this specialty… and my Granny.

The last time I saw her before that particular okra incident was about a month before. I had driven through the night to be with my family. Arriving well after midnight, Granny greeted me at the door in her nightgown and housecoat, all sleepy eyed and smiling. My grandfather, Glyn Hinkle – or as many know him, Buddy – was right behind her. And in the kitchen was a fresh pan of okra. We sat there in those early morning hours eating and talking about the reason for my impromptu visit.

My parents had moved from Wynnewood to Seminole, Oklahoma, nearly two years before. A tornado destroyed the home they built there the day I traveled from Austin. My mother had called only hours before in a panic, spouting broken exclamations about my high school yearbooks and senior photos – all gone. Mom was in their safe room with the cat. The dog was hiding under the bed. And my dad was a mile away, driving to the scene, watching the tornado dip down next to the house and skirt across the pasture.

Click “View All Images” below to view a slide show of the tornado wreckage.

When my mom emerged from the reinforced concrete and steel room, which conveniently and cleverly doubled as their bedroom closet, the dog was shaking under the bed, and mom was in a state of shock. The storm had ripped away a great deal of their home and scattered our family’s memories for miles.

The next day, Granny, Buddy, and I surprised my parents by driving over to Seminole to help with the cleanup. Well, I helped with the cleanup. My grandparents, who honestly couldn’t do much heavy lifting, were really there out of support and love. Upon arriving at the site, Granny went straight for my three-year-old niece, Madison, the absolute joyous highlight of her later years. Always into something, Madison pointed out one of her dress-up costumes among the wreckage. Within a few minutes, my 78-year-old grandmother had fished out a pair of fairy wings and slipped them onto my niece, who soon fluttered about the yard. The scene was ridiculous, but it actually reminded me that the situation was far better than it could have been. My parents were alive, we could be entertained so easily by a little girl twirling around with my grandmother in a backdrop of chaos, and most importantly my family members were all together for each other.

That natural draw to be a part of the healing process and to care without hesitation I noticed early in my grandmother. I never met a person who disagreed with that. She wrote cards, called often, and collected money for the sick in our community. She cracked the whip at church, always organizing some grand event to raise money for whatever the congregation needed, somehow managing to walk a fine line between pushy and graceful. She cheered at the baseball games, she bragged about the band performances, and she let everyone know every detail of each of her family members’ accomplishments. But the greatest pride – no, pleasure – in her own skills and talents came with a needle and thread.

Like her mother before her, Granny was a wildly accomplished seamstress. From making the bridesmaids’ dresses in my brother’s wedding to countless clothes for my little niece, it’s a wonder she ever strayed from her sewing room. Her forte was quilting though. Everyone admired the work she completed, and everyone wanted one of their own – even strangers. Most importantly, she used quilting, along with her posse of church ladies, to serve several charitable causes. Her ability to sway people to purchase chances to win quilts, to donate to whatever cancer organization or church building fund at the time… well, it was oddly charming and subtly aggressive together.

Only once did I hear someone tell her directly of their displeasure toward her. It was me. When I was six years old, she really upset me. I was not allowed to eat out of the sugar bowl, especially before dinner. Standing in her dining room, I put my hands on my hips and told her, “I hate you.” I remember she started crying right there and told me how sad it made her to hear that…that no one should ever feel that for someone. I quickly hugged her and said, “I’m sorry.” All was well. She told me years later, she wasn’t really crying. It was all a farce. What a rotten thing to do to trick a kid into an affectionate apology. Ha! No, she really wanted to teach me the importance of loving someone, regardless of a disagreement. Forgiveness and moving forward were important pieces of her life, and it showed every time I saw her growing up and each time I called her states away after moving for school and later my job.

Her style of humor and semi-subtle ways of proving her point always stuck out. That okra incident I mentioned before also involved a round of calf fries she told my calf-fry-disgusted mother were actually chicken strips made especially for her to eat to her heart’s content. Those masked meats were sitting prepared in the kitchen next to the okra and the cake meant for Madison’s four-year birthday party later that evening.

An hour before the party that would precede that family dinner, I called my grandparents to tell them I had been caught in Fourth of July traffic on my way up from Austin. I had planned to ride with them to the party, but they should go on without me. Buddy informed me Granny had just developed a severe headache, and they might be late themselves. He hung up the phone. Minutes later, Granny had a stroke.

One by one, her loved ones gathered at the hospital in the days to follow. The outpouring was amazing. They wanted to let the woman who cared for everyone know how much they cared for her. After four days and saddening news of her deteriorating, unchanging unconscious condition, a nurse told our family she didn’t think this woman who, before her stroke had only had non-life-threatening ailments, who was excited about the events in the weeks ahead – a trip to see me in Texas, raising money for a cancer quilt, my niece’s birthday party – who had just been fixing a meal for her family… our vivacious matriarch would most likely pass away before the sun came up.

The family left, but, despite his exhausted state, my Buddy wanted to stay the night with her, just as he had every night since this sad situation began. There was no way I was going to let him stay alone. I helped him scoot the fold-out couch next to her hospital bed, tucked him in, and then retired to a chair across the room. For the next several hours, I stayed awake surfing the Internet on my laptop, glancing at Buddy as he stirred occasionally, and watching Granny’s breathing begin to slow down.

Around 5 a.m., the alarm on Granny’s IV sounded to indicate the bag of fluid was empty. The sound woke Buddy, and he sat up to look at his wife. I called the nurse, who hurried in with a replacement bag. As she was working, I stood on the other side of the bed, holding my struggling Granny’s hand. My parents and her sister, Carolyn, walked into the room just then. Just seconds later, as if she was waiting to say goodbye to her family, Granny took her last breath.

Sleep-deprived from my night that ended in Granny’s last living moments, when we returned to my grandparents’ home, I went straight for the okra. I moved the containers my brother and I had put my favorite vegetable into earlier from the refrigerator to the freezer. I’m sure I came across a bit possessive, as I all but threatened anyone who touched those containers. I wasn’t ready to let that part of Granny go, even if it meant delighting in the deliciousness that was her cooking…her last bit of cooking.

If my family’s strange run of bad luck over the past few months taught us anything, it was that we lose some things and retain others. My parents lost their house, and we lost countless keepsakes. But in the process of recovery from the tornado, we became closer and better understood the importance of actual memories. In my last memory of seeing Granny running around the wrecked yard with my wing-donning niece, she showed me how to enjoy life even in the hardest of times and to care for those around you even when it hurts.

The days that followed her death were some of the toughest I had ever encountered. Selecting her outfit, picking out flowers, sorting through dozens of photos. Through it all though, she once again brought my family closer and reminded us how much we love each other. It is hard to say goodbye, to force myself to eat that okra. But in the end, I know it will spoil, so I will – in my own time – enjoy it while I can and fondly remember the woman who shared it with me.

The preceding blog post also served as my grandmother’s eulogy, which I read at her funeral in front of her friends and family.

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | April 6, 2010

Sometimes Size Does Matter

The double doors to the MetroRail had just slid shut when the pain in my side started. The particular car I had boarded was packed – every seat was occupied, people were standing in any space available in the aisle, and the poor bicyclists had no chance of using the bike racks. As we all rattled along the tracks on the commuter train’s first day in business, I became very appreciative of my camera of choice.

As a multi-platform reporter for KXAN, I most often shoot my own stories. Normally, I work with a 25 lb. XDCam and its accompanying tripod. Predicting the 32-mile journey from downtown Austin to Leander might offer little room for a those lofty luxuries, I opted for a chancy replacement. The HD FlipCam is about half the size of my hand. I know journalists use it regularly for supplementary video, especially on Web stories. Some even use it to put together the bulk of a television story, as well. The latter appealed to me a few times before, so I had no problem making the decision to shoot this MetroRail story the same way.

Crowded MetroRail

The cramp began on my left side, just above my hip a few minutes into the ride. It was similar to a feeling I had experienced about a week before, something that woke me up in the middle of the night. That particular pain subsided in about ten minutes, but my mobile scenario just wouldn’t let up. I knew it would be well more than an hour before I got off the MetroRail’s inaugural voyage, and my insides felt like someone was pulling a jagged piece of steel through them. This was definitely more than a muscle cramp.

Sweating from my attempts to play it off and do my job, while moving around as much as possible to keep my mind off the increasing cluster-of-death my side had apparently decided to inconveniently evolve into – I took my little HD FlipCam and shot video. I interviewed the people around me. I choked out conversations with them to find out what they thought of this first day on the MetroRail. Sure, the video was probably a tad shaky. Maybe it was the train, maybe it was the pain. Still, it allowed me to capture the excitement people had for what was happening. The free WiFi aboard for the businessman wrapping up work on his way home. The scenery whipping by for the kids. The thrill of saving money and gas for those environmentally-conscious frugalistas. It was all there.

By the time I was off the train at the Leander platform, the hurt was nearly gone. I knew that little camera had saved the day, keeping me from further trauma and getting the job done. Thinking back to the last time I used it to shoot an entire story a few weeks before, I considered how lucky I was the side mystery hadn’t popped up then. In need of specific rescue training after a man became stuck in one of Austin’s vast network of underground caverns, firefighters staged an emergency in a place called Whirlpool Cave. Photographers from most of the other local stations had shown up with their cameras, equally large as my regular XDCam. We each followed the 30 firefighters down a ladder into a large opening in the ground. 15 feet later, the bottom of the the entrance to the cave met us. It was large and seemed as if there was no other exit besides up.

Austin firefighter lowers into Whirlpool Cave

I heard one of the photographers say, “Well, I can’t fit through there with my camera.” He pointed to a hole about three feet wide, then turned to go back up the ladder. I was determined to make this story work, so I found a dry place to leave the big camera behind. I reached into my backpack and pulled out not one, but two FlipCams, just in case. Ducking down into that hole in the cave wall, I switched on the light atop my helmet.

Josh and AFD firefighter

The “victim” was 300 feet below Austin, and firefighters said it might take an hour to get to that point. The ceiling was very low and dripping with moisture. When I wasn’t stooping over to attempt to walk, I was crawling on my stomach through an inch or so of muck. Scooting myself along with my elbows and knees, I held one FlipCam out in front with my hand to capture the descent and kept the other in my back pocket.

After about 20 minutes of this dampness, I watched the screen on the FlipCam being held die. It turned gray, then there was a quick line through the screen before nothing. When we got to a point where I could sit up, I investigated the error. Taking the camera apart, I noticed moisture was collecting inside around the lens cover. I hadn’t dropped the camera, but I figured the air was saturated enough that far down to cause something like this to happen. I wiped a film of cave condensation from my face and had an idea, as I replaced the out-of-service camera with the one from my pocket.

As we continued on our course, I would stop recording every two or three minutes. Next, I pressed my lips up to the camera lens and breathed in hard. Weird? Sick? Okay, whatever. It worked. I was able to suck away any moisture from inside to keep the camera running the rest of the trip. We rescued the “victim” and emerged into the sunlight before I hurried back to the station to put the story together. Again, the FlipCam saved me. However, I might have actually been the one needing rescuing if that pain would have popped up then. Three hours, 300 feet below the surface, in a space big enough to only crawl. I hate to think about it.

The only way I knew it was possible for me to shoot an entire television story on a FlipCam was through an experiment last fall. My mother, you see, is a paranormal investigator. Yes, a ghost hunter. Believable or not, her job was reason enough for me to see if this shooting method was possible.

My dad and I booked the haunted room at Austin’s historic Driskill Hotel for such an occasion. A jilted bride supposedly killed herself in the room, so of course my mom was more than happy to take part. Morbid? I know.

Mom says, "Could that be a ghost following Josh across the street in front of the Driskill?"

Using the FlipCam, I discovered I was able to move around a lot faster. True, the video was in HD. It looked good but not as crisp as my XDCam. There were other shortcomings. To capture the best audio, I had to be very close to the audio source. And, with just one setting (besides a zoom feature), I was unable to use the lens in a way I would normally prefer. Regardless, the basic concept of the story turned out well. My parents were hilarious, and I received a lot of positive feedback.

As if that wasn’t spooky enough, I apparently had an alien growing inside me just a few months later on a train. I booked a ticket to doctor the next day only to find out I had kidney stones. Kidney stones! Mere millimeters of hardened compounds passing through me. It astonished me that something so small could have such a large impact… and made me appreciate the same gesture offered by my FlipCam.

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | December 28, 2009

These Boots Were Made for Talking

Old Blanco County Courthouse, 2009

My parents were stuck in Oklahoma on Christmas. The massive winter storm across most of the Midwest piled enough snow around their place, it was too risky to drive to Amarillo for the holidays. The bi-annual pilgrimage back to the city where they grew up would have to wait. As a result, after the rest of the family left, I remained at my grandparents’ house, wondering how to carry on the conversation.

Joe Smith – my 79-year-old Pawpaw – is a man notoriously lacking in words. What he does say is witty and gruff, but it’s also increasingly rare through the years and bouts of sickness. Sitting in his stuffed, leather recliner, he uncrossed his ankles and adjusted the tennis shoes he was wearing. The footwear came with comfort, something, after many years of wearing cowboy boots, this real-life western man could no longer do. In fact, for a great deal of his life before getting sick, he made boots, setting up shop in his garage. His stitching was intricate, and you could tell he loved the craft. My dad and uncle had various pairs from decades before, rarely worn today. Pawpaw cleared his throat and muddled a question concerning my recent move to Austin. I paused. Suddenly, John Wayne popped into my mind.

Joe C. Smith

After eight months of living in the Texas Hill Country, I received word from my bosses that I would soon be moving from the bureau to the main KXAN station. I was thrilled at the thought but also knew there was a lot to do to make the move. My absence from this blog was, in part, due to using every spare moment of time to pack, haul, and settle into my new residence.

Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

I still receive tips and story ideas from sources in my prior role though. I pitched one such idea in our assignments meeting, wondering if the managers would let me travel back out that far. For months, people had been talking about a Coen brothers‘ remake of the movie “True Grit” (watch the original trailer). Central Texas casting for certain roles led to a lot of excitement, especially considering the movie’s popularity among western lovers.

My pitch involved the Old Blanco County Courthouse in Blanco, Texas. Built in 1885, the structure didn’t last long in its legal capacity. Just 4.5 years later, Johnson City decided it would be the county seat instead and constructed a new courthouse there. From what the manager at the former courthouse – now a historic site – says, the move caused quite a bit of upset among residents of the two towns – something that’s continued somewhat for more than 120 years.

Old Blanco County Courthouse, 1885

The old courthouse held up well. Over the decades, it was a restaurant, a museum, even a hospital. More than a thousand Blanco residents were born there, so it’s no wonder pride for its presence runs strong. Now, Blanco’s loss could be its biggest streak of luck ever. The courthouse manager recently received a call from staffers with the Coen brothers.

Because of the building’s excellent condition and the fact that it had no court proceedings, the Coens apparently felt it was the perfect site to shoot True Grit’s courtroom scenes. It also matched the time period for the movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar in 1969. His portrayal as Rooster Cogburn, the man enlisted by Kim Darby to track down her father’s killer, was definitely one for fans to remember.

Courtroom inside the old Blanco County Courthouse

As I told Pawpaw how the movie’s filming could boost Blanco’s economy and tourism, he looked at me sternly. I stopped talking, trying to decide whether he enjoyed the story. Then, he said, “Fill your hands, you son of a…!” We both started laughing at Wayne’s classic line. This was definitely going well. Next, he began to recount the other movies he loved, line after line. It was great! Everyone in my family knows Pawpaw is a huge fan, but I’d never heard him speak so freely about it.

Understanding his interest in John Wayne’s work, before I shot the story (watch the full KXAN report) – which my managers had approved – I dug deep into the closet of my new place. A few years before, I had taken a few pairs of the boots Pawpaw had made for my dad. The dust on top was an indication Dad wouldn’t miss them too much. I slipped them on, knowing Dad and I wore the same size.

Pawpaw's boots

Two inches taller and feeling as if I was doing something in honor of Pawpaw, I unsteadily slinked up the steps of the courthouse a few hours later. The boots put me in a western mood, and I left thinking this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be trying them on.

Telling Pawpaw I had worn his boots gave us another subject to dive into. I sat there soaking up the unusually, pleasant time. The Coens will begin filming this spring. Perhaps once it’s released to DVD, we’ll figure out a way for Pawpaw to watch and discuss. Until then, footwear and Wayne will have to do.

Take a FlipCam tour of the Old Blanco County Courthouse below:

UPDATE: My younger brother, Dace, and I sat on the edge of the bed in Pawpaw’s room just over a month after I published the preceding blog post. We laughed loudly, as he worked hysterically to squeeze his long, narrow foot into a tan and burnt orange pair of one of our grandfather’s creations. That couple and the closet-full of others were actually the ones he once wore himself. Pawpaw passed away on February 1, 2010. After reading the blog post, our grandmother suggested we take the boots. At first, I hesitated at the gesture. After all, they were…his.

The boots Pawpaw made and wore

Earlier that day, my dad shut the door to the visitation room at the funeral home, leaving my brother, me, and Pawpaw alone for a few minutes before the rest of the family arrived. We were his only grandchildren, and everyone kept saying how proud we made him. Standing there next to the casket, staring at Pawpaw, we just took in the silence. As much as I don’t want to embarrass him by saying this, my brother broke the moment when I heard him wipe some tears from his face. Dace is a lot like Pawpaw, probably more than anyone in our family. Very subtle. Very serious. This display surprised me, and I remember telling him how rare it was to have a moment like this with Pawpaw.

Dace told me about a business trip he made in the area a few years before, stopping by our grandparents’ house along the way. It was the only time he could recall having an in-depth conversation with Pawpaw, but it was the best memory he had of the man. I think it was like a transformation for both of them, acknowledging a change in life. Dace had become an adult. Pawpaw had become a friend.

Pawpaw and little Josh

It made me think about the Pawpaw I knew as a kid, always tickling me and driving me to the edge of town to watch the prairie dogs pop out of their holes. My last memory was the friend Pawpaw had become to me, the person I found myself chatting with about John Wayne and my job as a reporter. I couldn’t have asked for a better memory.

As much as that moment will stick with me, a few extra reminders would end up in my suitcase on the way back to Austin. The boots that seemed to represent the life Joe Smith led became ours. Dace’s toes bunched up too much to actually pull them on, but I planned to slip my feet – a perfect fit – into some for the plane ride home.

Posted by: Josh Hinkle | September 2, 2009

What Lies Beneath

Holly Marie Simmons disappeared in Llano County in 2006

Holly Marie Simmons disappeared in Llano County in 2006

As the school bus disappeared down a Llano County road, no one knew it would be the last time anyone would see Holly Marie Simmons alive. The 45-year-old mother had just dropped her daughter off on a late November morning. In the next few days, the sheriff’s office would execute a massive search for Simmons, one that would take almost three years and pure luck to find the missing woman.

On the day crews pulled her body from Inks Lake, it would still be another two months before I heard Simmons’ story (watch my KXAN story about the body’s discovery). It was one of the hottest days I could recall of my life. Another story about another lake consumed my work day at first. Low levels on Lake Travis showed the near-historic drought’s effect on local marinas, boating, and other recreation. People were choosing to go elsewhere for water, places with consistently maintained lake levels. After eight hours in the sun and live shots at five and six o’clock, I was more than ready for a shower and bed.

Crews pulled a body from the bottom of Inks Lake under the old Highway 29 Bridge in July 2009

Llano County crews pulled a body submerged in a boat from the bottom of Inks Lake beneath the old Highway 29 Bridge in July 2009

Then, there was a call from my assignments manager. “Could you swing by Inks Lake? We’re getting reports of something going on along Highway 29.” First of all, there is no “swinging by” in the Texas Hill Country. The area is vast with many, many winding roads. The path ahead of me was nearly 70 miles long. Sarcastically agreeing to the trek, I plugged the route into my GPS and turned up the country station on the radio. It already felt like one of those nights, though the steel guitar was kind of nice.

By the time I arrived at Inks Lake, crews were clearing the scene and the sun was setting. I had to act fast after learning about the body found at the bottom of the lake. I captured some quick video to upload to YouTube, snapped a string of photos for my Web story, then began hammering out a script for the 10 o’clock news.

Recreational divers had apparently happened upon a small, submerged boat on the bottom of the lake just below the old Highway 29 bridge a few days before. Taking underwater photos of what they believed to be human bones then turning those images over to the Llano County Sheriff’s Office, the group had just kicked off what led to a homicide investigation. Authorities gave few details, beyond the presence of a body made up mostly of skeletal remains inside the as yet identified boat, most likely sunk in the water several years before.

Weeks went by with no news. The chief deputy came to expect my call every Monday morning, asking for an update. The body’s autopsy was complete. Investigators believed they knew how the person died, though they would not divulge those details. The tough part was the identification process. Because of the severe decomposition, they initially had trouble determining if the body was a man’s or a woman’s.

Shirley Cowan, 60, disappeared in 2001. Her son-in-law was later convicted of her murder, although her body never surfaced.

Shirley Cowan, 60, disappeared in 2001. Without the discovery of a body, her son-in-law was later convicted of her murder.

Missing persons cases came next. The sheriff’s office said it was looking into at least two in Llano County and several others in surrounding counties. One of those most mentioned by nearby residents was that of 60-year-old Shirley Cowan. This woman had commissioned her son-in-law, Thomas Negri, to construct a home for her in Kingsland in 2001. Negri is now serving a 20-year-sentence for murdering Cowan. Investigators believe it happened in the house he was building, after finding blood stains on the floor there. His conviction was rare in Texas, being that police never found a body.

While some neighbors believed Cowan took a vacation and decided to remain gone, as Negri originally told police, many others hoped for answers with the emergence of the body under the Inks Lake bridge, a quick 10-minute trip from the site of the home Cowan never saw complete (watch my KXAN story about this unsolved case).

Two months after the find, the sheriff’s office finally had a positive identification. Dental records indeed matched a Llano County woman. For now though, the whereabouts of Cowan’s body are unknown. It was Holly Simmons’ case moving from missing person to homicide victim (watch my KXAN story about the identification).

Simmons' former home at 210 Cortez Trail in Buchanan Dam, Texas

Simmons' former home at 210 Cortez Trail in Buchanan Dam, Texas

In November 2006, Simmons’ two teenage daughters returned to their Buchanan Dam home after school and found their mother’s vehicle, keys, cell phone, and wallet. The only thing gone was Simmons. As they filed the missing persons report, the girls initiated a search that had numerous law enforcement agencies scouring Llano County by land and air in hopes of finding their mother alive. As the days went by, the search dwindled and eventually the case went cold.

Neighbors recalled posters donning Simmons’ photo hanging in convenience store windows across the county. Some believed Simmons just left, but the sheriff says he always felt her disappearance was suspicious. This woman didn’t seem like the type of person to leave behind her car and cell phone… her family… her life.

The sheriff also says her body was surrounded by objects meant to weigh down the boat to the bottom of the lake. Someone wanted to make sure Simmons stayed hidden. Because of the drought, more people are exploring what Inks Lake has to offer, as more popular places like Lake Travis where I had sweated away prior to this assignment continue to evaporate by the day. Scuba divers find Inks Lake a welcome alternative to their regular spots. Whoever left Simmons there probably never anticipated the uptick in tourism.

Now, the Llano County Sheriff’s Office is focusing on finding her killer. The sheriff says it is most likely someone she knew. While leads were sparse in the three years since her disappearance, her body offered new clues and sparked new interest in her case. Perhaps someone will come forward with more information soon, bringing this mother’s mystery one step closer to closure.

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