Search continues for man whose boat was found near marina

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   BUTLER -- On Wednesday, officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency continued the search for a man who has been declared missing since his 23-foot cabin cruiser was found abandoned near a marina on Watauga Lake Sunday evening.
   James Elliot Lanza, 50, of Boone, N.C., was determined to be missing when the owner of Midway Marina, Bill Harry, and another man found his 1996 green and white cabin cruiser floating in the water.
   "There are no results at this time," said TWRA District Supervisor Tim Sain of the search efforts. "There are no new developments."
   The incident is being treated as a boating accident and missing person case by the TWRA. An investigation of the boat revealed no evidence of foul play.
   TWRA officers, Johnson County Sheriff's Department officers, personnel from the Johnson County Rescue Squad and officers of the Carter County Sheriff's Department not only conducted a search of the water surface after Lanza was reported missing, searches were also conducted on the shore line. The cause of Lanza's disappearance is still under investigation, Sain said.
   Harry reported that he was sitting at the marina shortly before 6 p.m. when he noticed the boat in the lake. "We left here about 10 minutes 'til 6 o'clock to cut the grass," Harry said. "About 6:30 I got through cutting the grass and noticed the boat was still out there. The boat was going straight like it was under par but it wasn't."
   Both Harry and Charlie Winebarger, who owns a camper at the marina's campground, watched the boat as it began to drift towards a sea wall. "You kind of hate going out there when you don't know what's going on on the boat," Harry said. "We waited a while to make sure it wasn't just someone lying down sunning."
   As the boat began to drift closer to the sea wall, both Harry and Winebarger decided that it was time to act. Harry started towards the adrift vessel on his pontoon boat from the main portion of the marina, and Winebarger left his space at the campground aboard a bass boat.
   According to Harry, the two reached the boat about the same time. "Charlie got on the boat and tried to start it and drive it back," Harry said. "When he got on it, the throttle was wide open and the ignition was on." Harry noted that the boat's gas tank was still nearly full, so the vehicle had not been abandoned due to running out of gas. "It didn't make much sense with the ignition on and the throttle full forward. (Winebarger) tried to start it and it wouldn't start," Harry said.
   After Harry and Winebarger discovered that the boat would not start, they towed it into the marina using Winebarger's bass boat.
   Another odd fact about the incident, Harry noted, is that the vehicle's kill switch had not been activated. "Those boats have a kill switch that you're supposed to wear on your belt; in case you fall overboard, it will kill the engine," he said. "The kill switch was still on the boat, so that's not what killed the engine."
   While Harry and Winebarger were in the process of towing the boat in, Harry contacted his wife via a ship-to-shore radio and told her what was going on. "She called the TWRA and told them we had found an abandoned boat that looked suspicious," he said.
   Harry stated that the TWRA had sent boats up to search the lake on Monday, but rough winds and choppy waters prevented them from staying out on the water very long. With calmer waters on Wednesday, Harry said that he had taken his boat around the perimeter of the lake to see if maybe Lanza had washed up on shore. "I thought maybe there was a chance that he'd had a life jacket on and he had washed ashore," he said.
   ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (AP) -- Authorities resumed their search Wednesday for a North Carolina man missing since a Sunday outing on Watauga Lake.
   A search for James Elliot Lanza, 50, of Boone, N.C., began Sunday evening when his boat was found adrift near a marina in Butler. He is believed to have been alone on the 23-foot cabin cruiser.
   The incident is being treated as a boating accident and missing person case by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, TWRA officer George Birdwell said.
   He would not speculate Wednesday about what happened, saying, "Law enforcement is looking at every possibility."
   Birdwell said high winds could have blown the boat quite a distance from where Lanza disappeared.
   Searchers Wednesday looked along the shoreline and the lake surface. A decision has not been made about dragging, Birdwell said.
   Investigators with the Boone Police Department, the Carter County Sheriff's Department and the Johnson County Sheriff's Department are helping with the case.
   An examination of the boat by authorities found no evidence of an accident or any type of foul play, Birdwell said.