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.



  1. I so love the Hill Country and once lived in Llano,Willow City and Mason,Fredericksburg area.
    I raised my children there and was ever afraid back then in the 70’s and 80’s.
    This is so sad,but i am so glad Holly’s family and friends finally know what happened to her.
    I PRAY that her killer is found and that JUSTICE will rein supreme for her.
    GOD Bless all searching for a missing loved one.
    dede & dale

  2. Thank you for your comment. I know all the neighbors are anxiously awaiting news on the investigation, as I’m sure Holly Simmons’ family is.

  3. Thanks for the background story. My sympathy goes out to Ms. Simmons daughters.

    The Llano sheriff does not sound confident of finding her killer. I hope that he is holding his cards close as to not spook the killer. If the sheriff does not have the killer identified after three years to investigate he needs to bring in the FBI to assist.

  4. Thanks for checking out the post. From what I understand, the sheriff’s office is now looking into some new leads that sound promising. He also mentioned that the person responsible might be someone Ms. Simmons knew. Maybe something will happen with the investigation soon.

  5. It’s so encouraging to literally read in your words the true compassion that you bring to your vocational field of journalism. Thanks for your voice that you share with many.

  6. Thank you very much for the kind words. I take this all very seriously because I know it’s an important story for this family and community.

  7. I am Holly’s mothers neighbor in NY. We are deeply saddened by her loss, but are glad that she has finally been located. My husband and I hope they find the person responsible and hold them accountable. God bless you all

  8. Thank you for commenting on this post. I am very sorry for your loss. It seems that Ms. Simmons touched a lot of lives.

  9. I grew up in Batavia, NY and she was my first girlfriend and I really loved her for many years. She had such a kind and generous heart, and we had some great times together. For many years I wondered where she went and what she was doing with herself, and it doesn’t surprise me to read that she was so loved. So I just hope that she will rest in peace, and that her family will find solace in knowing the God’s got this whole thing in His hands; somebody will pay for this one way or another.

  10. Thank you all for caring about my sister. We are glad to find her and put her to rest in peace after these years. just wondering who mike is.

  11. Thank you for the comments, Mike & Norma.

  12. Thank you for all the kind words and under
    standing in my family’s time of need.
    We all were saddened by her death, but
    having closure was very important to us.
    We are all confident that JUSTICE WILL
    BE SERVED. Everthing takes time,and time
    heals wounds.

  13. I am still very upset about Holly’s dead…I met Holly when Sammy her oldest was her only child.. that been many years ago…she cared for all her children and having 4 was a lot of work…Holly was kind and had a gift for giving induvidual attention to the people she like…she came by my house befor departing for Llano County to say good bye…I never forget her AJ and Ashley driving down the road…what a responsibility to care for 2 young girls…she will be on my mind for a long time …I miss her and her silly laugh


    to the family- a great loss …sorry to all

  14. I met Holly when she had only one child..that was many years ago…she was a friend of the family..Celina and I miss her very much…Holly was a very unique person full of energy and dedication…honest…helpfull…giving and so many more qualities…lot of people like her for who she was.. her own self…I last saw her when she departed to her new home in Llano County..I never forget my thoughts when she drove down the road with her two girls…it is not only a crime taking her life but also taking a mother from them children… very sad and mind boggling…she was so full of life with few complains …what a lost..what a tragic…
    To the family…she is missed by many good friends

  15. High my name is Sylvia I met Holly in 2006 at the nursing home in Marblefalls. I consider my self a good CNA and Holly was great we did it from the heart and loved are job. Me and Holly where more than co-workers we became very close friends. Holly would take me back and forth to work some times I lived not far from her. When I became seprated Holly help me find a place to live she would cook dinner (good cook) and Id go spend the evenings with her. Her two daughters and mine became good friends. I miss going to the lake and swimming with Holly and the kids. We had fun fourth of July 2006 and went out dancing I really miss this woman but am gratefull they did find her. I moved to Austin In August 2006 and me and Holly talked all the time I would drive down to see her the last time I saw Holly was before Halloween of 2006 she was telling about a get together a young man at the golfcourse (where she worked ) was haven. And the last time I talked to holly was the day before Thanksgiving 2006 I called her that evening to ask her how much sage I put in my dressing (not a cook) she said just a pinch sage goes a long ways Me and talked along time about things that was going on. She was funny, sweet and loving and caring and loved her children very much. I called Llano and left my number for them to call but not heard for them. My Heart goes out to Hollys family god bless you!

  16. Thanks too all that care for our mom. We miss her very much. Hope soon we will recieve good news and finally get this case closed and get justice

  17. Thank you for sharing your post with readers.

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