FERRIER FILES: District Attorney speaks with Lauren Agee's family
DEKALB COUNTY, Tenn. —
The family of a young woman who mysteriously died on Center Hill lake two and a half years ago had always hoped someone would re-open the investigation.
“We've been waiting two and a half years to meet with the D.A.," said Sherry Smith, Lauren Agee's mom. "We had hope."
Sherry and Steve Smith have spent their retirement and savings trying to discover what happened to their daughter with what they say was little cooperation from law enforcement or the district attorney.
Before we get to this meeting, let's talk about the family got here. The DeKalb County Sheriff's Department decided Lauren Agee fell to her death from this campsite on Center Hill Lake.
If you read the report, you will find there almost no pictures taken and no obvious signs of how and where she fell. Her clothes were not collected, and it was never treated like a crime a scene.
When the medical examiner said it appeared she died from blunt force trauma from a fall and possible drowning, the case was closed.
Two White County detectives were also on the scene, and they thought it was a suspicious death not an accident. They thought the two men at the campsite, Aaron Lilly and Christopher Stoudt, were acting suspiciously.
“When we got them into the pontoon boat with us Aaron told Chris 'shut up! I will tell them the story, don't say anything,' Officer Ryan Melansen said. "I mean red flags everywhere."
The family hired a team of private investigators. They did fall testing too see if it was even possible for Lauren Agee to fall into the lake. They also hired hydrologists and death examiners and discovered there was bite mark on Lauren's chest that was never asked about.
“They didn't follow up on the bite mark that appeared on her chest," said Alex Little, Agee family lawyer and former federal prosecutor. "There was the evidence whether or not a body can fall from that place into the water. There are circumstances here.T hings did not happen as they are being portrayed."
After two and a half years of investigation and fighting out of the blue, District Attorney Bryant Dunaway called the Agee family and said he wanted to meet.
Dunaway said he asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to review the case file.
“He said 'well, we had a lot of media attention to this case. I've looked into and talked to my friend at the TBI and we talked to the medical examiner so we decided to close the case thank you goodbye,'" said Agee's mom Sherry Smith.
But what about new witnesses that came forward? Chris Brown is the small business owner who says he saw Aaron Lilly swimming in the lake cursing and sputtering at a time when he stated he was already asleep for the night.
What about the people who said they saw a fire the night they found Lauren's body? Lauren's belongings were never returned, they just disappeared.
If the file is in question, why wouldn't the DA's office simply review the file and re-interview everyone who was there?
"They can offer people immunity," Little said. "They can sit down and say 'we are not going to use this conversation against you, what happened that night?' They didn’t appear to do any of that, which tells me they weren't interested in answering these questions. They were interested in putting out a press release to the local press."
In fact that is exactly what they did. The DA's office sent out a news release to the local radio station in DeKalb County. The Smith's said Dunaway never asked them a single question. Sherry Smith said he didn't ask for any of their two-year private investigation either.
“I was in shock, discouraged," Smith said. "I had hopes walking in. And after I listened to the eight minutes of Mr. Dunaway's speech, he doesn't have Lauren's best interest at heart and he doesn't have ours."
The smith's keep replaying one part of their conversation in their heads.
“What was really disheartening, when he looked at us and said the only way this case will ever be reopened is if you get a confession," Smith said. "Well in order to have a confession, you have to have an investigation. But we haven't had that. We haven't had that at all."
The DA's response
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway would not do an on-camera interview but did talk to Fox 17 News Reporter Dennis Ferrier on the phone.
Q: “Why not reopen the case?
Dunaway: "There is no crime scene anymore...All the people involved have lawyers and there is nowhere to go in the case"
Q: Do you admit the original investigation was substandard?
Dunaway: "I don't really want to comment on the original investigation"
Q: Why not interview some of the new witnesses?
Dunaway: "They don’t know what happened. They weren’t there when this occurred....There is a finite amount of witnesses who there when this happened and they have all lawyered up. I am in the business of prosecuting people. I wish I could in this case, but there is no reason to reopen a criminal case."