Three men were duck hunting near a Tennessee lake when a stranger with thinning gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses pulled up in his boat on Monday morning.
Within minutes, two of the hunters were shot and 70-year-old David Vowell was reportedly standing waist-deep in the waters of Reelfoot Lake.
That was the last time anyone has seen him.
Vowell is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of 26-year-old Chance Black and 25-year-old Zachery Grooms, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said. Law enforcement from five different agencies are searching for him, though rain earlier in the week delayed their efforts, media outlets report.
“It’s bizarre, I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Tommy A. Thomas, district attorney for Obion and Weakley counties in Tennessee, told Thunderbolt Radio. “Routinely, if you have a homicide, then there’s a motive. Here we don’t have one.”
The hunters’ deaths and the disappearance of Vowell, a local businessman with no criminal record, have baffled this community about 125 miles north of Memphis.
Internet sleuths have bandied whodunit theories on social media amid stories of Reelfoot Lake’s reputation as a rough and tumble playground for duck hunters.
The mystery was shared on a Facebook page for “Little-known unsolved murders & missing persons cases,” which has nearly 200,000 members. Burton S. Staggs, a social media personality with more than 55,000 followers on Facebook, has posted near-daily updates on the case — including a 30-minute audio in which he recounts his conversation with the district attorney.
More than 500 people commented on the post, with several speculating about Vowell’s past and mental state at the time of the alleged shooting.
A local newspaper reported all of the men were well known in the community. Black and Grooms graduated from Greenfield High School in Weakley County a year apart, The Messenger reported. Black is the son of Chief Deputy Mark Black, a longtime officer in the Weakley County Sheriff’s Department.
Vowell, who is from nearby Martin, is part owner of Vowell Lumber Company, WREG reported.
Reelfoot Lake sits a few miles east of the Mississippi River and is a popular spot for fishing and boating, according to Tennessee State Parks. It’s also a somewhat notorious locale for duck hunting, according to Will Brantley, a reporter at the outdoor magazine Field & Stream.
“For those who don’t know, Reelfoot Lake is a tough place, one that’s legendary for blind burnings, fist fights, and boat ramp justice against anyone who doesn’t follow the rules,” he wrote in an article Wednesday.
Brantley said he “never encountered any contingent of sportsmen more consistently and openly hostile to one another than public-water duck hunters.”
Jeff Crabtree, who was in the duck blind with Black and Grooms, told investigators they’d gone to Reelfoot Lake around 6 a.m. and were there for about three hours before Vowell pulled up in a boat, according to WREG.
Crabtree said Vowell had asked to hunt out of their blind and the men agreed, the district attorney told media outlets.
Vowell allegedly proceeded to load his gun while still in his boat, which struck Crabtree as odd “because normally you don’t load your gun until you get to your hunting position,” WREG reported.
Crabtree said his back was turned when he heard the first gunshot and saw Grooms had been struck, according to the TV station. Black was shot shortly after that.
Thomas, the district attorney, said Crabtree then hit Vowell in the head and tossed the gun in the water before he escaped toward the shoreline to get help, Thunderbolt Radio reported.
Where is Vowell?
Investigators later found Vowell’s boat with a shotgun about 200 yards from the scene, according to the radio station. His truck was also towed from a boat ramp.
Law enforcement believe Vowell could have left the water on foot and fled into the surrounding wilderness.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t turn up one way or another — he’s 70 years old, really he’s got nowhere to go,” Thomas told Thunderbolt Radio. “If he’s alive he’ll turn up. If he’s dead he’ll probably turn up.”