I grew up in southeastern Kentucky near Straight Creek, a…
The river had been low and sluggish for over a month at that point. The fishing had been good enough, but beyond that there hadn’t been much at all for us to give a hoot about for some time. We felt about as sluggish as the river, mutely longing for something to get us churned up, thought you’d have a hard time finding anyone to admit that now. At the hydroelectric dam they didn’t have but one turbine gate open halfway. The river depth was less than three feet, and the level of Denby Lake behind the dam was going down, too. Most anyone who knew anything about the water running through town knew this, or some version of it. Not one of us knew that Tommy Lyles was parked out behind the McDonald’s, waiting for Jenna Sutphin to get off work. More than likely, Jenna Sutphin didn’t know he was out there either.
Not until a lot later, once they found Tommy and he started talking, would anyone other than him and Jenna have even a little bit of an idea what went on out there that night. It’s taken a while, but we’ve been piecing together a story, and there’s a fair chance we got some of it right. Near enough to right to satisfy most of us.
The one and only lead police ever had came from Jenna Sutphin’s co-workers, the last to see her. No one else could have known a thing. That it would be Tommy Lyles the cops should be hunting for didn’t come as much of a surprise to the other girls who worked the counter with Jenna. He’d been coming in a lot lately. Always the same—quarter-pounder with cheese and a large Mountain Dew—then he’d sit in a booth near the counter and watch Jenna. Once he told her he thought she was pretty. She smiled, said “thanks,” then shared a covert smirk with Lydie Walters when she turned away to the pass-through shelves to get his quarter-pounder. Only once, as far as anyone could tell, Tommy actually asked her out. She declined politely, with a smile, said she had other plans, maybe some other time. When she told Lydie about the invitation, later, on break out back, Jenna rolled her eyes and said, “as if.” Lydie said, “total creep. And he’s, like, old—must be, like, over twenty.”
Once they caught him, all Tommy seemed able to say was that he loved her and to keep asking why that hadn’t been enough. He never gave out too many details about what 74 actually happened out back when Jenna got off that night, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out. All told, Lydie was right. Creep. With a father like Buddy Lyles, how could he not be? But also just a pitiful fool, thinking love was a simple thing, painted in only one color. If he could just get her alone for a few minutes he could show her his love was real, sincere. And if his love was sincere, how could she possibly deny him? That should be enough. All any girl ever wanted or needed. It had to be.
When it wasn’t, he shoved her in his car and drove off, looking for a place out of the way to further convince her. Along the river, we found out later. Most anything of interest or importance around here, sooner or later, works its way down to the river.
The river remained low and slow that night, a black mirror, shimmering through the trees along Landing Road, but that would change soon enough. The front moving up from the Gulf was going to make its entrance into the region by dumping a load of rain on the mountains upstream in North Carolina and then work its way up the spine of the mountains to us right here in the Hatcher River Valley. Before Tommy got to that spot along the river he had in mind, while Jenna was still either screaming, calling him a creep, or cowering against the passenger side door, terrified—even before then the engineers at the hydroelectric dam were getting ready to open another turbine gate, to increase the dam’s flow, no matter how much it dragged down the water level of Denby Lake. In this way, they could run more of the coming flood through the turbines, generating more electric power, more cash, and waste less of that lucrative water through the flood gates above the spillway of the dam.
Jenna might have been screaming, might have been dumb with fear. We like to think she fought back. Truth is, we don’t know. What Danny Pinsker and Stanley Sowers found wedged into that big sycamore snag just downstream from the intake valve at the water processing plant, well, it didn’t look much like the Jenna Sutphin we knew. Thanks to fish and other critters, and to the flood, there wasn’t all that much you could tell for sure from what was left. Only that she was strangled, the way her windpipe was crushed, and that she didn’t drown. No water in her lungs, so she was dead before she ended up in the water. No chance of telling if she’d been raped or not. That little creep Tommy Lyles, by the time they pulled him out of that old camper trailer where he’d been hiding, he couldn’t do more than babble on about how he loved her and that she should have loved him. That, and he’d left her body on the big island just this side of the interstate.
Of course, none of us knew this until Jenna had been missing for nearly two weeks, but it seemed to fit. Tommy would have taken her somewhere out of the way, along the river. Whether she screamed or cried or fought or sat in paralyzed terror, he would have thought she’d come around, give herself over to him, once she saw how much he loved her. When she didn’t, he mashed his thumbs into her throat and cut off her air until she stopped screaming or crying or fighting or being terrified. Not able to think of anything else, he would have driven to that little turnout at the end of Fenton Street. No one down there to see anything that time of night. He’d have dragged her down the bank to the water, his footsteps slipping on that steep little footpath. By that time, the river would have likely been a good foot deeper, the current stronger from the increased water release at the dam. It would have been a strain for him to wade across the fork to the big island. He might have heaved Jenna’s body over his shoulder or might just as well have let her float and tugged her through the water to the island. We won’t ever know, and it’s not like it matters now. One way or the other, he strangled that poor child, toted her body out to that island, and dumped it there, probably somewhere back in that stand of blackberry brambles where it would be harder to see. That much we can be pretty certain of.
Killing what you love because it doesn’t love you back doesn’t make any sense, at least not to most of us.
By the time the search got up and going, the rain had been on us for a couple days. At the hydroelectric dam they were running two turbine gates open all the way. That makes for a strong current, but nothing out of the ordinary. By all the forecasts, though, a load more rain was on the way. And it was. The river was just going to get deeper and stronger for some time, and we knew it. And it did.
Searching for something that isn’t trying to be found, isn’t hoping to be found, is harder than you’d think. Anyone who’s lost a cat or a dog knows that. The first couple days, the police put most of their efforts into finding Tommy Lyles since that was all they had to go on. Jenna Sutphin was missing, they knew that for certain, and that Tommy was the last one to be seen with her. Lydie Walters made sure the police knew that. She’d seen that creep Tommy out in the parking lot when Jenna opened the back door to leave at the end of her shift. Lydie said she didn’t see anything else because she had to get back to her station at the drive-thru window. Last we heard, Lydie hasn’t been back to work since. Blames herself. Can’t stop crying.
Poor thing. The police put the word out in all the official channels and looked for Tommy Lyles. They found his car parked in that alley out behind his parents’ house, but his folks said they hadn’t seen him in a couple of days. No surprise in that.
As for the other part of the search, we took care of that. A.J. at Peery Office Supply ran off all the fliers free of charge. Those fliers, with a recent photograph of Jenna on them, got plastered all over town—store windows, utility poles, a quarter-page ad in the Dalton’s Ferry Register—but we knew they wouldn’t make a lick of difference. We all knew who we were looking for. Still, it made us feel like we were doing something. When she was hobbling out of Meade’s Supermarket, Edith Quesenberry saw one of those little Corbin brats draw something filthy on one of the fliers. Old and slow as she is, with that bad leg and all, Edith beat that Corbin kid senseless with a bag of cantaloupes she pulled out of her shopping cart. Marty Griffith said it was actually kind of funny—the Corbin kid lying there, stupefied, melon pulp all over the place.
A little shrine for Jenna grew up outside the high school— cards, flowers, candles, stuffed animals—the usual stuff. A smaller shrine showed up behind the McDonald’s, where she was last seen, but the manager had it removed. The delivery trucks couldn’t get to the back door. That manager, he’s not from here originally.
Prayers for Jenna were flying pretty thick in all the churches in town, especially at Zion Baptist, where Jenna’s mother, Maureen, was a parishioner. How that woman has borne the weight, none of us can imagine—that rotten ex-husband of hers long out of the picture, the cancer she’s still fighting, and then this.
Some of us went out looking, driving around town, up and down alleys, wandering along the river, but the rain made that part of it difficult. And folks couldn’t stop going to work, going on with their own lives, no matter how awful it all was. You do what you can, which isn’t much, but you do it anyway.
In the end, it was the flood brought things to a head. The hand of God, some of us said. Others said it was more like weather and the hands of the engineers up at the dam opening the floodgates. Closure, a few of us called it. Others of us thought things were still about as muddied up as they usually are after a flood.
We were well into the second week of steady rain here, and it had been even heavier upstream in North Carolina. The dam was already running all three turbine gates full bore, with more water guaranteed on the way once all that North Carolina run-off made its way downstream. Word was they’d have to open the floodgates any day now, and then there’d be one hell of a mess. And there was.
By the end of the second week of rain, the fliers about Jenna’s disappearance were already looking tattered and worn and, as promised, the floodgates at the dam had to be opened. The river crested a good two feet above the fourteen-foot flood stage. Water got all the way up to the loading dock behind Meade’s Supermarket. The foundry had to shut down, with a couple inches of water on the main shop floor and the parking lot completely underwater.
And the flood found Tommy Lyles.
that part of Dudley Street that bends right down to the river had to evacuate, and you can be sure they hightailed it in 79 plenty of time ahead of the flood. They’d been through that before. But it had been seven years since a flood this bad. Since then, Millie Fontenot had taken a pretty serious turn for the worse. Her husband, Francis, had been gone five years at that point, and all she had was her daughter, Cindy, to care for her. Bed-ridden as Millie was, Cindy called the fire and rescue squad to help her move her mother out of harm’s way, though by Cindy’s account, her mother was so close to the end at that point, she may as well have just left her to the flood. Cindy’s always been kind of rough around the edges.
When fire and rescue got to the Fontenot house, floodwater was halfway up the backyard and rising. It was already lapping at the door of the rusted old camper trailer propped up on cinder blocks in the weeds out behind the house. The paramedics kept a wary eye on the rising water, as any of us would, while they lifted old Millie into the ambulance, and that’s when they saw him. Tommy Lyles, hiding out in that broken down old trailer. He’d opened the door into the muddied-up flood surging around the trailer and stuck his head out, a look of flat confusion on his face, wondering where in the world he was going to hide out now. Just as dumb as he was deadly.
The paramedics got Millie tucked into the ambulance, called it in, and pulled out onto Dudley Street to wait for the police to get there. Millie and the ambulance would be safe out there in the street for a good while yet. They wanted to wait for the police and see them get that squirrely son of a bitch. After the last two weeks in Dalton’s Ferry, any of us would have wanted to see that.
After hammering us for all that time, the rain just stopped, not another drop for weeks after that. The hydroelectric dam 80 had closed the floodgates, and the river was settling back into something like its normal course. The water level was still high and rough, but no longer a danger, as long as you weren’t fool enough to go out on the river just yet.
Word is, Tommy Lyles confessed right away. As if. Still, it took a couple days of his babble about how love should be before they got anything specific out of him. We can’t confirm it, but they say one of the cops, Linda Rifkin, waled on him pretty hard. Linda is a close friend of Maureen Sutphin, had been since grade school, plus she had two daughters of her own. None of us could really blame her, considering.
Seems he’d been holed up in that old trailer the entire two weeks. Wilbert Croke said the place reeked of mold and piss and that it looked as if he’d been surviving entirely on Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts. How he got that junk in there, no one ever found out. Or whoever sold it all to him wasn’t about to admit it. Either way, eventually they were able to decipher enough of his babble to figure out he’d dumped Jenna’s body on the big island.
Water was still too high, the current too strong to get out on the island. Most of it was still underwater. Local authorities tried to get the engineers at the dam to decrease the discharge, but there was still too much water in the river upstream from the lake. If they cut back any more than they already had, that water would pile up and they’d have to open the floodgates again. Didn’t surprise anyone in Dalton’s Ferry that power and money were still worth more than the body of a young girl. They said we’d have to wait another day or two before the water levels could reasonably be expected to come down.
Natural disasters aren’t always so natural.
Technically, anything out in the river channel is the jurisdiction of the Department of Game and Fisheries, but there wasn’t anyone of a mind to make a fuss over jurisdiction. When the flow from the dam finally dropped low enough— police, fire and rescue, fisheries—they all tugged on their waders and trudged through chest-high water out to that island, none of them too eager to find what they were looking for. It took most all day, but they covered every inch of that big island and found exactly what anyone who knew anything about flooding on the Hatcher River could have told them they’d find after a flood like this one.
Jenna Sutphin had been washed downstream. Most of us could have told them she would have been, but they had to start there. Had to start somewhere.
They did find a black visor with the McDonald’s logo stitched into it hanging from a branch about ten or twelve feet up a tree at the downstream tip of the island. A bit of a miracle they found that, some folks said. So, they knew that much of Tommy Lyles’s babble was true. He’d taken her to the island, and she’d still been wearing her work clothes. As far as most of us could know, she could have been washed downstream most anywhere in such a flood. Game and fisheries would bring in their boats, and they’d start the search downstream first thing in the morning. That’s as much as any of us knew at that point.
The next morning, at first light, game and fisheries had their boats, four of them, at the put-in ramp at the far west end of town, just downstream from the dam, just upstream from the big island. The police were there, fire and rescue, too. All of us knew this, and some of us made it down to the boat ramp to see them off, to wish them good luck, considering the circumstances. A few others of us were wandering along the riverbank, snooping half-heartedly for what we really didn’t want to find, not having much else to do with ourselves but wanting to be able to say we’d helped with the search. Most of us, we were off to work or school like any other day.
The river was down, but still running deep and fast. More significantly, for the first time in nearly two weeks, the water had cleared, all that silt and mud finally settled out. Clear enough now to see a good ways into the depths. Clear enough to fish again. More than clear enough for Danny Pinsker and Stanley Sowers to justify slacking off on work that morning in order to get a line in the water—not something that would come as a surprise to anyone who had lived in Dalton’s Ferry for longer than five years. On any given day, if the conditions were right, we could as likely as not expect to find Danny and Stanley out on the river, bass fishing. And anyone of us who knew anything about the river and the fish in it, which is most of us, knew that Danny Pinsker was the best damned fisherman on the Hatcher River. River guides from around the region have been known to follow him and Stanley, watching them through binoculars, trying to learn Danny’s special spots. Stanley used to say that Danny Pinsker had the personal home address of every smallmouth bass in the Hatcher River Valley.
We understood that the search team had to do it by the numbers, start at the tip of the big island and work their way downstream, slowly, carefully, covering every bit of the river. This was serious, and they couldn’t cut any corners. We also knew that if they’d asked Danny Pinsker he could have told them that with flood water like that, the current would have swept over the big island and washed anything not rooted there in a wide arc out toward the main stem. The main current would have driven the secondary current back toward the bank until it cut around the shoal behind the foundry. After that, once it hit the rapids near those big boulders, it was anyone’s guess which way something in the water would be carried off, but either way, it wasn’t likely what they were looking for would turn up anywhere upstream from the water processing plant. If they’d asked, Danny Pinsker could have told them that.
Afterwards, Stanley said that he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like Danny knew they were going to find what was left of Jenna Sutphin that morning, that it was as if he headed right for the spot. They’d put in at the ramp by the park, and Danny had pointed his jon-boat right downstream. Stanley had to admit, they often started fishing by the water processing plant. A couple of good holes and grass beds there, usually thick with bass. And like they usually did, they’d started fishing there, and they’d each caught a couple right away. Good sized fish, all of them, scrappy and stirred up after the flood.
This is what made him wonder, Stanley had said. Normally, Danny Pinsker would never pull up and leave a spot where the fishing was that good. Never. Stanley said it was like he wanted to do something clean and good, no matter how briefly, before they had to face something that horrible. That it was like he knew. After landing those two good fish, bringing them in, holding them in his hand for a second before releasing them back into the water, Danny reeled in, laid his rod in the boat, pressed his foot to the pedal of the trolling motor, and guided the jon-boat slowly around that little bend until they saw that big sycamore snag and what was caught up in it. The search team would have still been a quarter mile upstream from the island at that point.
What Danny and Stanley found tangled in the halfsubmerged sycamore branches was so puffed and twisted it hardly looked human anymore. Stanley said he could hardly look at it, that he thought he was going to puke, it was so terrible. He said Danny never took his eyes off it.
Snarled up in that snag as the body was, the current was still strong enough that it might pull it loose and send it further downstream. Danny beached the jon-boat and got out to stay with the body while Stanley turned the boat upstream and ran it full throttle back to the boat ramp to try to flag someone down, have them call the police and tell them to get that search team downstream fast.
When Stanley Sowers drank too much, which was pretty often, he also talked too much, let out things that most of us would just as soon not have heard in the first place. As often as Stanley got drunk and chatty, he only told this last thing one time, as far as any of us can recall. But Brian McCraw was there when he told it, so of course, it got around. Stanley said that when he got back downstream to that snag, Danny Pinsker had scooted out onto the main trunk of that downed sycamore and was sitting right there on it, just above the body. He’d reached down into the water and taken hold of the swollen, purple lump of pulp that had been Jenna Sutphin’s hand. And Stanley said Danny was just sitting there, leaned over sort of, holding that hand, not like he was holding the body in place but more like he was holding the girl’s hand to let her know that she wasn’t alone anymore, that nothing bad would happen to her ever again.
Brian said Stanley’s hands started shaking then, that his eyes got all red and wet. He turned to Brian and asked, 85 “How in hell am I ever supposed to stop drinking after seeing something like that?”
For that question, not one of us had a good answer.