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.
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.
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).
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.