Search continues on Lanier, likely to be called off during weekend

BUFORD -- If the body of 13-year-old Griffin Prince isn't recovered beforehand, search operations on Lake Lanier will be suspended for the weekend, officials said Thursday.

As of Thursday evening, search crews from the Hall County Sheriff's Office, Department of Natural Resources and several other local jurisdictions had no luck in their continued efforts to locate Prince, presumed killed alongside his brother when his family's pontoon boat was struck head-on late Monday.

Hall County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks said personnel were "continuously reassessing the search operation."

"We will be here (Friday)," Wilbanks said, "but we are planning to suspend operations over the weekend because the very high boat traffic in the Shoal Creek area will create dangerous conditions."

Wilbanks said there were no concrete plans Thursday as to when a search might be called off. Capt. Mark Padgett, the region supervisor for DNR's law enforcement division, said his teams usually operate for as long as 10 to 14 days.

"It's such a tragic event for the family,and it's also a crime scene," Padgett said. "We're trying to bring some closure to the family, and we have other things we have to look at for this thing, too."

Griffin Prince and 9-year-old brother Jake were killed late Monday when the pontoon boat driven by their father was struck by a fishing boat. Forty-four-year-old Paul Bennett has been arrested and charged with boating under the influence, but will likely face additional homicide by vessel charges.

A total of 13 people were on the pontoon boat, and, in addition to Griffin and Jake, three were injured. Bennett reportedly lingered at the scene for 10 minutes before fleeing in the boat he purchased from the Princes, who have run the Grass Shack boat shop on Holiday Road since 1991.

A wreath now hangs outside the family's store, which has remained open during the tragedy.

Bennett was arrested at about 1 a.m. Tuesday and later released on bond from Hall County jail. No special conditions -- i.e. an order to stay off the lake -- were placed on his release "because he bonded out before it went to a committal hearing," Wilbanks said.

Attempts to reach Bennett, who owns a hair salon in Johns Creek, have been unsuccessful.

The search for Griffin Prince's body continued Thursday. Padgett said crews completed their second aerial search of the area between Lake Lanier Islands and the Buford Dam, and divers have persisted despite 100-foot depths and about two feet of visibility.

As many as 45 people are searching at any one time, Padgett said. The process is complicated by a lack of a precise accident scene.

"Nobody's going to be able to say, 'This is exactly where this happened,'" Padgett said. "We've looked at GPS coordinates that came off the pontoon boat."

Caution is urged to other boaters taking to the water during the search. Padgett said there are no "restricted areas," per se, but crews are vigilantly protecting divers by encircling them, throwing up flags and flashing lights.

"We try to make a minimum impact," Padgett said, "but we're not going to let them go close to those divers."

This week's tragedy has brought concerns about boating safety on Lanier back to the surface.

There were seven boating-related fatalities on Lake Lanier last year, making up nearly half of the 17 reported statewide by DNR, which publishes stats from eight major lakes throughout Georgia.

The collision that claimed the lives of Jake and Griffin Prince was the second fatal accident on the Lanier this year. On the evening of April 21, two boats collided in the water near Lower Overlook Park. While two boaters were able to swim safely to shore, Stephen Blake Jones, 59, of Duluth was killed. Lack of lighting has been blamed for the crash.

A father and stepson from Lawrenceville drowned on the lake just a week prior to that incident.

In Georgia, the legal alcohol limit for boat drivers is .10, even though residents who get behind the wheel of a car must keep their blood-alcohol content below .08. An attempt to lower the boating limit to .08 was approved in Georgia's House of Representatives this year but died in a Senate committee.

Bennett's BUI arrest was the 20th on Lanier this year. Padgett said there are about three patrol boats on Lanier most weekends, a number that has suffered during budget cuts.

"That is down from 10 years ago when we probably had seven or eight boats out there," he said. "But again, we're just down in numbers. There are 8 million visitors a year (on Lanier). You obviously can't be everywhere."

Contributions to the Jake and Griffin Prince Memorial Fund can be made at any Wells Fargo branch.

A Facebook page has also been established at facebook.com/JakeandGriffinPrince. Friends, family and the community are encouraged to share uplifting stories about the boys, described as "two of the most special and unique souls that God ever put on this earth."

For now, the search for Griffin continues.

"We have additional resources on stand-by to augment operations into next week," said Wilbanks, the Hall County Sheriff's office spokesman.


Gundoctor1 3 years ago

What a tragedy. This guy ran into the people he bought the boat from??? What a strange coincidence. Why would he leave unless it was to go get help? It's not like they don't know him. Two children lost, what a terrible shame.


SickandTired 3 years ago

Gundoctor1......Bennett was under the influence of alcohol and it was 10:30 in the evening. If you have ever been on Lanier at night you would know it's pitch dark unless there's a good moon. Bennett didn't leave to get help - he left the scene. Your comment "it's not like they don't know him" makes no sense. You honestly think Bennett thought "Oh wow I just hit the guy who sold me this boat"? We need some sort of boating license to be on Lanier and Alatoona, every weekend we see morons on the lake who have no clue about navigation or safe boating rules, add to this a lot of them are drinking. Over the years we have chosen to stay off the lake at night and on holidays because that seems to bring out the dumb-masses.


notamom 3 years ago

The crash coincided with a new moon, if i'm not mistaken. Add speed and alcohol, and this is what you get.


gwinnettmom1 3 years ago

How about NOT calling off the search just because it's the weekend? What is wrong with you people? There is a CHILD in this lake! Not a lost object or a sunken boat, but someone's litle boy is in this lake and calling off the search for the weekend just so boaters can go out and have fun is ridiculous. How about closing the area surrounding the search area and staying out there and looking for this little boy? Makes no sense whatsoever.


teelee 3 years ago

What's the weekend have to do with it? If it was your kid would you be ok with everyone just taking the weekend off?. Just block off that part of the lake and keep searching, I have seen it done before. This is what we pay these people to do.


news2me 3 years ago

Why can't the search continue and this section be restricted so that this family can gain some closure? Heaven forbid lake goers have to change their plans and go to a different part of the lake.

I am afraid that this is probably the best call for the safety of the search and recovery crews. Not an easy call to make.


xmpierce 3 years ago

I agree. There is a possiblity of a boy at the bottom of the lake and Lake Lanier is taking tourism versus finding a body. It's about as stupid as Lake Lanier posted on facebook 3 kids in a pontoon boat with a caption of "Come on Mom and Dad, let's go to the lake." .. Wait a minute.. they did that this afternoon for about an hour before they got so many complaints they removed it. Geez


Outlaw79 3 years ago

What a terrible tradgedy. My heart and prayers go out to the Prince family. I wish I could say a lesson will be learned here, however, the typical weekend boaters on lake lanier don't seem to be the kind of folks that learn anything.

A fisherman myself, I sold my boat 2 years ago simply because of the traffic and constant encounters with irresponsible boaters on Lake Lanier. I found trying to fish on the weekends is impossible unless you can get off the water by 10am.

People on the lake lose all sense of courtesy, safety, and common sense when on the lake and it seems half the boaters on the lake over any weekend are inebriated. I agree with the poster who stated that some sort of certification should be required to boat on Lanier.

Incidentally, it is ridiculous that the blood alchohol required for a BUI charge is higher than that for DUI. What is legislature's thinking on that one?


JCJB 3 years ago

Outlaw79, It isn't that "people on the lake lose all sense of courtesy, safety and common sense or are inebriated". These are the people that are no different off the lake than they are on the lake. Certification wouldn't help. They have licenses to operate a car and are still idiots.


Mater97 3 years ago

I hope the family can have peace and recover with time. My prayers go out to them.

I can understand suspending the search for the weekend it is also about the divers safety and recovery. So much time in the depths they have been working can cause serious hazards if they do not take anytime to recover. I know a few of those divers and they will search until they are told they must rest.

I want to thank them for their efforts so far and know they will not quit until they can bring Griffin home to his parents.

Semper Fi


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