Staff Photo: John Bohn -- An FBI-operated boat used for sonar search operations, left, and an FBI dive team on the boat at right, join Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Hall County Sheriff's office in the search of a portion of Lake Lanier on Monday, for the remains of Griffin Prince, 13. Prince has been missing since a boating accident last Monday night that took the life of his younger brother Jake Prince, 9.
BUFORD — As the hunt for a Buford teen’s body surpassed the one-week mark Tuesday, dozens of searchers explored a vast aquatic crime scene riddled with difficulties as the two busiest weekends for Lake Lanier patronage approach.
Searchers were joined for the first time Monday by two cadaver dogs, a specialized underwater camera and the FBI’s technical dive team, which has equipment that allows divers to remain at extreme depths longer than six minutes, the maximum for regional divers.
That’s in addition to a week’s work of surface searches, two days of helicopter flyovers and numerous but unsuccessful dive attempts. Forsyth County officials are helping to grid the lake with GIS data, allowing searchers to check off areas already searched.
Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Melissa Cummings said Tuesday that the search is progressing as it has the past week, with no success.
The focus is a rectangular area of several square miles less than a half-mile from Sunset Cove, where authorities believe the impact between two boats killed 9-year-old Jake Prince and launched older brother Griffin, 13, overboard. Authorities believe Griffin’s body is in the realm of 110 feet deep, in a submerged hardwood forest where divers have less than three feet of visibility, even with a search light.
Trained to sniff out human remains, cadaver dogs on the bows of boats detected scents Monday morning and were being sent back in the late afternoon. Cummings said the dogs were being redeployed Tuesday.
Nearly 60 DNR rangers have been brought in from around the state to maintain a constant presence, running sonar as late as midnight, said DNR Capt. Mark Padgett, one of several search coordinators. A private boat towing company brought in an underwater camera from San Diego.
“We’ve thrown just about everything we have at it right now,” Padgett said.
Sonar devices used specifically for search and recovery spotted a promising shape during the weekend but lost touch after equipment failure, said DNR Lt. Eddie Henderson. Reaching such depths can take divers more than 45 minutes and entails hazards; two divers in the search have become entangled and needed rescue, while another was jabbed by a tree branch, Henderson said Monday.
“They’re risking a lot to try to look at our targets (provided by sonar scanning),” Henderson said. “We’re trying to make absolutely certain it’s worth their time and resources.”
Padgett said the weekends before and after July 4 are the busiest of the year for boaters at Lake Lanier.
“We’d like to have this wrapped up for the family,” Padgett said. “When you lose two sons in one fell swoop, it’s tragic. We’re going to do the best we can.”
The boys were believed to be killed about 10:30 p.m. June 18 when a pontoon boat piloted by their father was struck head-on by a fishing boat. The Prince family was with several others, returning from a sunset cruise.
The driver of the fishing boat, 44-year-old Cumming resident Paul J. Bennett, was charged with boating under the influence and released from Hall County jail last Tuesday, but he could face further charges.
Bennett left the scene and was arrested about three hours later at a Forsyth County marina.
The family has said they’re holding off on funeral plans for Jake until his brother is found. Henderson said there’s no timeline for calling off the search.
“At some point, we’re going to have to scale back. It’s just day-by-day, a judgement call,” Henderson said Monday. “For a drowning, we’re still early in the process.”
In an interview last year, Forsyth County’s dive team members explained the rigors of searching Lake Lanier, which hides a submerged forest about 30 feet below full-pool waters in most areas. Along with towering hardwoods, the divers must contend with steep elevation drops and miles of snagged fishing line.
DNR data show 60 people drowned in Lake Lanier between 1999 and 2009 — an average of more than five per year — while another 19 died in boating fatalities. Neither DNR nor the lake’s creator, the Army Corps of Engineers, track how many victims were never found. Most bodies don’t emerge for weeks, if not months, when certain gasses are released during decomposition, divers said.
The Prince family has owned and operated a boat shop off Holiday Road at the lake for more than 20 years. Jake was a rising fourth-grader at White Oak Elementary School in Sugar Hill, and Griffin would have been an eighth-grader at Lanier Middle in the fall.
Community suppport for the Prince family remains strong.
Two youth swim teams in Gwinnett — Daniel Park Twisters and Hidden Falls — are using their Thursday afternoon swim meet at Dacula’s Daniel Park to raise funds for the boys’ burial. Swimmers will bring private donations and those from restaurants and companies in the area, an organizer said. The public event begins at 5:30 p.m.
Friends and family of the Princes gathered Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil at the family’s Buford subdivision, where many offered condolences. The boys’ uncle stayed with searchers at the water’s edge Monday but declined media interviews.
The family has established the Jake and Griffin Prince Memorial Fund. Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo location. The “Griffin and Jake Prince Memorial Page” has also been set up on Facebook.