UPDATE February 20, 2019:
An appeals court ruled the family of Lauren Agee has a right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against three people who were among the last to see the 21-year-old alive, WTVF reports.
May 24, 2017:
A picturesque vacation getaway in beautiful Tennessee. But some say amid the rippling water and jagged rock cliffs lies a tragic mystery.
It was supposed to be a fun camping trip with friends to a popular three-day wakeboarding event -- but sadly Lauren Agee wouldn't make it through the weekend.
The beautiful 21-year-old and three of her friends canoeing in the dark toward a remote Tennessee campsite, 90 feet straight up. Lauren never made it back down alive.
Lauren Agee was the one every girl wanted to know and every boy wanted to date. Brains, beauty and a personality you couldn't help but notice.
"Lauren was a very, very outgoing child," said Sherry Smith, Lauren's mother. "She had all the first-place ribbons, she was just really, really good as far as sports and dance."
Lauren was in her second year of college studying criminal science and she had met the guy she called "the one."
"Everything in her life was great, she was living here at home with us, she had a boyfriend," said Sherry. "She was so happy, and then she died."
Her mom Sherry says the nightmare started with a simple request.
"Lauren came down that day and said 'Mom, there's this thing called WakeFest I want to go to,' and I said 'Honey, what is WakeFest?'"
WakeFest is a wet-and-wild three-day party on Center Hill Lake, two hours outside of Nashville. Hundreds of fans cheer on professional wakeboarders during the day, party all night and camp out on houseboats and cabins around the local marina.
"I said 'Who are you going with?' And she said 'Well, Mom, I'm going with Hannah Palmer,'" said Sherry. "Well, Hannah was a friend that she was only here or around Lauren in between boyfriends.
"I said 'Lauren, OK, you're going with Hannah. Where are you staying?' And she said 'Well, we're going to stay in a cabin,' but things changed after she got there," said Sherry. "As a mom I just really had this really bad feeling, and then she started to walk away and I went 'No, no, no, I want one more hug, one more hug,' and she come over and I just squeezed her really tight and I said 'Lauren, be careful.'"
Lauren and Hannah were primed and ready to party, documenting their car trip on social media. WakeFest lived up to the hype, and Lauren lived up to her reputation of being the life of the party.
Kassi Franks went to high school with Lauren, and they bumped into each other on the docks.
"Lauren definitely, there was alcohol in her system, you could tell. She was having a good time," said Kassi.
Soon Lauren and Hannah hooked up with two more friends: Hannah's new boyfriend Aaron Lilly, and one of his buddies, Christopher Stout.
"I did not know them," said Lauren's sister Alison Bivens. "From my understanding, Chris was a stranger to my sister and to Hannah."
Christopher and Aaron were known thrill-seekers, spending the day wakeboarding on the lake. But Sherry was shocked to find out her daughter tried something far more dangerous: cliff-jumping.
The cliffs at Center Hill Lake are terrifyingly steep, and the water below is filled with hidden rocks.
"If you throw yourself off of it you can miss the rocks and you can land in the water," said Kassi Franks.
But Lauren's jump doesn't go as planned.
"The kids said that she hit the back of her head and you know, maybe she was knocked out for a few seconds or maybe it was a concussion," said Sherry Smith.
Despite the scare, Kassi says Lauren seemed fine later that night at a bar in the marina. Hannah, Aaron, Lauren and Christopher hang out at the bar most of the night. Kassi says Lauren made it crystal-clear she was not romantically interested in Christopher Stout that night.
"I feel like she was just having to put up with him. She was Hannah's 'wing-man,'" said Kassi.
Around 2 o'clock in the morning the four head out -- it's bedtime. But instead of sleeping on one of the houseboats or in a cabin, Lauren learns there are new sleeping accommodations: Up on a narrow cliff filled with danger.
"I could see that 100 percent that she did not want to be up there on that cliff," said Kassi Franks.
And who can blame her? The cliff is a stomach-churning 90 feet above the lake on one side, and a 45-foot drop down on the other.
"Lauren did ask if she could go with my group, but I just, we didn't have any more room," said Kassi Franks. "That was the very last time I saw her."
Kassi was scared for Lauren. She spent the night there a few years earlier.
"I never went back up there after I got down," Kassi said.
And the most terrifying part is where to sleep once up there: In a hammock tied loosely between two trees, dangling right out over the water.
"I remember saying to myself 'If this rope breaks I'm gone," said Kassi.
And the campsite bathroom?
"You had to hold onto a tree and lean backwards," said Kassi. "I mean it was straight-down incline."
Once at the base of the camp, it's a brutal, steep 90-foot trek straight up using a thin rope. At the cliff-top campsite, there's more partying. Around 3 a.m. Aaron and Hannah head toward the only tent, while Christopher and Lauren bunk down together in the hammock.
"I just don't think she would have stayed with him specifically if she knew who he was," said Alison Bivens, Lauren's sister.
A photograph of Lauren and Christopher in the hammock is believed to be one of the last ever taken of Lauren.
"Lauren wouldn't have chosen to be with these people," said Sherry Smith.
When the sun comes up in the morning, Lauren is gone, nowhere to be found.
Lauren Agee has literally fallen off the face of the earth in the middle of the night.
"I immediately thought that there's no way that, she of all people, could go missing because she does not go unnoticed," said Lauren's sister Alison.
"Something happened up there," said Lauren's mother Sherry.
Chris Yarchuk, a police detective from a nearby county, was working security for the event and remembers chatting briefly with Lauren and her friends. What did he think of the people she was with?
"They were quiet and reserved," said Yarchuk. "They weren't nearly as outgoing as Lauren was."
Yarchuk can't forget the nervous feeling he had watching Lauren and her friends canoe over to the cliffside campsite around 2:30 in the morning.
"I saw the four of them leave together," said Yarchuk.
Hours later, Lauren's friends say she was gone.
"They say when they woke up Sunday morning, her shoes, her cellphone and her stuff basically was under the hammock," said Sherry.
There are only two ways to get down the cliffside camp. The first option is by rope down a treacherous drop through a maze of trees, bushes and snakes. The second way down is even more dangerous: Hurling yourself off the other side of the cliff, hoping to hit the water 45 feet below while missing the jagged rocks buried beneath the surface.
"They could have said 'Hey our friend is missing, can you help us look for her?' They didn't do any of the things that normal friends would do," said Sherry.
Instead Hannah told authorities "Oh, she must have went back to the bar," said Sherry.
And that's why they never reported her missing.
"They went on about the day in WakeFest and everything," said Alison.
But two hours away in Nashville, Tennesse, Lauren's mom hasn't heard from her daughter and she's a nervous wreck.
"Sunday morning I started calling and calling and calling, and just like, you know, it was little texts, it was like 'Hello, hey you,' and just no answer," said Sherry.
Sherry had no idea she'd never speak to Lauren again.
Two fishermen find Lauren Agee's body in a cove.
Officer Yarchuk was first alerted by Deanna and Harry Elder, who work at the marina.
Only four people knew there was a body back there? "That is correct," said Harry Elder.
But before Yarchuk can even get to Lauren's body, something bizarre happens.
"Aaron was in a canoe paddling over there and he says to me, 'That could be one of our friends over there,' and I think it's odd because we haven't publicly announced anything about a person in the water," said Harry Elder.
"I don't know how they knew that," said Harry Elder.
"I came around the corner in the pontoon that day and started right back there in the cove, and then before I got halfway there I could notice the bright pink color in the water," said Yarchuk.
Lauren's body was out of Yarchuk's jurisdiction, but he has the feeling this could turn into a crime scene and instinctively makes mental notes.
"I noticed a bunch of trauma and blood on the back of her head on her left side and her shoulder area," said Yarchuk.
Officer Yarchuk also notices what he believes to be a bite mark on Lauren's chest.
"I suggested they do a rape kit on her," said Yarchuk.
"All we could think of was that somebody's life was getting ready to change and the mom was probably at home cooking supper, waiting for the family to get together, and we knew that wasn't going to happen," said Deanna Elder.
Nearly 12 hours after her daughter went missing, Sherry Smith gets the devastating news from a DeKalb County Sheriff's deputy.
"He said 'I just want to tell you that your daughter didn't make it -- she's dead,'" said Sherry. "My gut told me -- I said to him, first statement: 'Where are the people she was with?' And he stepped back and he looked at me and he said 'We have them, we're questioning them.'"
All three -- Aaron Lilly, Christopher Stout and Hannah Palmer -- are briefly questioned, then released.
"They think she fell in the middle of the night and drowned into the water," said Sherry.
The coroner finds Lauren's blood-alcohol level to be twice the legal limit. No rape test is conducted. Her body was never swabbed for DNA. With that, the DeKalb County Sheriff closes the investigation.
"Accidental -- actually, the incident report says 'drowning,'" said Sherry. "You believe law enforcement, you do, but my gut feeling was telling me different."
Lauren's story may have ended here -- but there was also something eating at Officer Yarchuk's gut: that somber vision of Lauren floating in the water.
"I know she didn't drown. People that drown sink," said Yarchuk. "She was floating."
And the autopsy shows there was no water in Lauren's lungs.
There was also something else Yarchuk couldn't get out of his head: an autopsy photo that shows an imprint on Lauren's stomach, an odd 45-degree triangle.
"I didn't like the people that she rode there with," said Lauren Agee's mother Sherry Smith.
Sherry claims Hannah Palmer, Aaron Lilly and Christopher Stout didn't grieve, mourn or shed a tear for her daughter. In fact, they reportedly stayed at the lake and continued to party.
"Chris Stout put on his Instagram the day after Lauren's death 'Best weekend ever' -- who does that?" said Sherry.
And days later when Sherry buried her daughter, she says none of the three came to the visitation or the funeral. Sherry was beginning to wonder if there was something these three were hiding.
Deanna and Harry Elder, who work at the marina across from where Lauren's body was found, were feeling the same. What stood out to them?
"To me that day was the behavior of the individuals," said Deanna.
"Their whole concern was about going home," said Harry.
And what Harry and Deanna found most disturbing was their stories kept changing.
"I heard she had a fight with her boyfriend, she wasn't up there, to all of the sudden she was up there," said Harry.
"'I think she got on a boat with a man,' that was another bizarre comment. And I went 'Mm-mm, no," said Deanna.
Hannah, Aaron and Christopher may have been behaving badly, but the DeKalb County Sheriff's Dept. maintains the three had nothing to do with Lauren's death, saying it was simply a tragic accident.
But Chris Yarchuk, a former police detective who was working security that night, completely disagrees with his brothers in blue. He believes the most suspicious thing was how Lauren's body ended up in the water.
Yarchuk is so convinced the three know more than they're saying he took it upon himself to record audio as he interviewed them shortly after Lauren's death.
Aaron Lilly, who built the campsite, tells Yarchuk he thought Lauren went to meet an old boyfriend.
"I honestly wasn't really worried about it, 'cause I didn't think anything had happened and I didn't think anything would happen," Lilly says on the recording.
Christopher Stout, the guy Lauren was sharing that hammock with, gave Yarchuk his theory.
"Honestly I don't know. My honest opinion is she got up to go to the bathroom and slipped," Stout says on the recording.
And then it's Hannah's turn. Remember earlier she told Deanna and Harry Elder that she saw Lauren leave with a man on a boat.
"I know she probably went to pee, but she didn't have her shoes, she didn't have her keys, wallet, phone and she like would not leave without that stuff," Palmer tells Yarchuk on the recording.
We took Yarchuk back up to that cliffside campground to see if we could prove or disprove that bathroom theory.
"By Hannah's account there was an area for peeing that they used which was by the tent," said Yarchuk.
He says there's no way Lauren could have slipped and ended up in the water.
"For someone to fall from this area to fall down through all these trees, off a ledge to a flat area, off ledge again to another flat area -- it's just not possible," said Yarchuk.
The bathroom theory didn't pass, but what Yarchuk couldn't get out his head was that strange triangle imprint on Lauren's abdomen. Then it hit him: it was an imprint of the tip of a canoe. Yarchuk believes Lauren was already dead when she was placed face-down on the canoe. Yarchuk believes the mark is an indentation made by the bow of the canoe.
"With the imprint on her stomach it looks like her arms and shoulders and head were put into the canoe, and it looks like maybe her feet were dragging," said Yarchuk.
Yarchuk was not part of the sheriff's department that investigated Lauren Agee's death, so he couldn't reopen the case. He did reach out to Sherry Smith and advise her to take a closer look at the last three people who saw Lauren alive. And she did.
Christopher Stout is reportedly currently sitting in jail for a parole violation, and has two DUI charges pending.
"He has a rap sheet this long of numerous offenses," said Lauren's mother Sherry.
Aaron Lilly has a history of DUI and domestic abuse.
"We got into a domestic dispute, he hit me multiple times," said Kassi Franks.
Kassi Franks is Aaron Lilly's ex-girlfriend and also happened to be at WakeFest that weekend.
"Whether it was a drunken accident that someone, you know, hurt her and they didn't mean to hurt her, but they hurt her -- but I still don't think she fell off the cliff," said Kassi.
And then Kassi hits us with something we never saw coming: "I found the pictures of from when he hit me."
Kassi says she's never shown the pictures before. The photos show her bruised and battered, she claims, after Aaron beat her. Lilly and Kassi were both charged with domestic assault, but the charges were dropped.
So why is she showing them to us now?
"The reason I didn't in the beginning is because I thought to myself, What does what I went through have anything to do with Lauren's death? Maybe it does," said Kassi.
Kassi offered the pictures to DeKalb County Sheriff's Office. She says they declined to look at them, maintaining there was no foul play involved and that Lauren fell to her death accidentally.
The official report says Lauren died of blunt-force trauma from falling off a steep cliff into the lake, and possibly drowned. But her mother Sherry thinks otherwise.
Lauren did not have water in her lungs. Theoretically you can drown without water in the lungs -- it's called "dry drowning."
Getting nowhere with the DeKalb sheriff, Lauren's family hired private investigator Sheila Wysocki to conduct her own inquiry. And she says what she discovered could blow this closed case wide open.
"I do not believe it was an accidental drowning," said Wysocki. "I believe that there was foul play and Lauren was placed where she was found. I think Lauren was dead before she was placed in the water.
"Because of her injuries," said Wysocki. "When you look at the cliff, and you're there, there are two possibilities: She fell off one side, which is a 90-foot drop; or she went off the other side. And there is no way her injuries added up to what's on her body. So if she was without her shoes, the bottom of her feet would be torn up like meat. It's not. There's just one little injury on there. The bruising in her back does show that she fell, but it doesn't show that she fell off the cliff. She probably fell off the ledge to another ledge."
So to test that theory, Sheila performed what she calls an unscientific yet dramatic test.
"We had a 105-pound dummy that we took up to the top of the cliff and we threw it," said Wysocki.
Chris Yarchuk did a similar test for Crime Watch Daily's affiliate in Nashville, tossing a dummy the size of Lauren off the cliff from several spots surrounding the campsite.
"You can't get to the water," said WZTV Reporter Dennis Ferrier, who was there to witness every attempt. "Carl Lewis couldn't get to the water. The best long-jumper in the world could not make it to the water. You would be tied up in trees and rocks."
Between Yarchuck and Wysocki, they tried the dummy test close to 50 times, with the same results.
"We dropped it and we took it to different areas to see if it could hit the bottom of the cliff," said Wysocki. "It couldn't, it didn't. It never did.
"When you fall -- you have arms and legs, you don't roll like a ball, so there are arms flailing, legs flailing," said Wysocki. "There's no way she would have hit the water. There's no way she did hit the water."
Then, Sheila Wysocki says, she used a milk jug to track the currents in the lake.
"What we know from witnesses, and science, that the currents were going the opposite direction that day, so she wouldn't have ended up in that cove. The currents were going the wrong way, the opposite way," said Wysocki. "She would have ended up by the marina."
And something else irks private investigator Sheila Wysocki: The medical examiner never did a rape kit on Lauren Agee.
"The sheriff said she had a tampon in, so she couldn't be sexually assaulted, which infuriates me," said Wysocki. "You can be raped with a tampon in."
Regarding that mysterious triangle mark on Lauren's chest and stomach that some say it looks like an indentation from the bow of a canoe, after going through Lauren's case file we had some questions for the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department, but they declined our request for an interview. Instead the sheriff issued this statement:
"The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency ... assisted the sheriff's department detectives in loading the body onto a TWRA boat to transport the body back to the boat ramp. Our investigation determined this mark is an identical match to the TWRA boat storage locker lid where the body was placed facedown during transport to the boat ramp." -- DeKalb County, Tennessee Sheriff's Department
"You see a boat with a cooler, you see a boat with a trap door, it's a box, which is square, 90-degree corners -- this was a 45-degree," said Chris Yarchuk.
Angles. Steep drops. A body floating face-down. For Lauren Agee's family nothing seems to add up.
"Somebody has got to come forward," said Sherry Smith, Lauren Agee's mother. "I think somebody has got to give more details of what happened that night. All I have is two little itty-bitty paragraphs on a police report."
To dig out those details, the family hired private investigator Sheila Wysocki.
"I looked it over and things didn't add up. I believe that somebody up there hurt her," said Wysocki.
Wysocki says she believes Lauren's death is no accident.
"I believe something was happening to Lauren and that she was either trying to get away or fighting, and that's where her head was hit, blunt-force trauma, and I believe that's how she actually died," said Wysocki. "I believe she went backwards trying to get away, hit her head and fell down the ledge.
"She has bruising on her thighs, her nose is broken, so there are a lot of injuries that absolutely don't add up to a fall off a cliff into the water," said Wysocki. "She's got broken fingers, which would be consistent with a fall, but it's also consistent with somebody fighting.
"The significance to me of the bruising on the thighs initially was someone putting their knees on a person, holding them down," said Wysocki.
"Her throat, she was hemorrhaging in her throat. Now, that doesn't mean she was strangled, because her eyes weren't bloodshot, but there is hemorrhaging. That wasn't listed on the autopsy. It's in the pictures," said Wysocki.
If that's true, then who could have done it? There were several hundred people on the lake for WakeFest. But there are only three people believed to be the last people to see Lauren Agee alive: Her friend Hannah Palmer, Hannah's new boyfriend Aaron Lilly, and Aaron's friend Chris Stout.
"We know who's not telling the truth because the stories are changing," said Wysocki.
That's why Sherry Smith filed a wrongful death suit against the three in an effort to force them to talk.
"When we filed the wrongful death lawsuit and we have a list of questions, they all pled the Fifth," said Sherry. "OK, come on, I mean, you plead the Fifth because you are afraid of incriminating yourself. It's not a hard question: Did you physically touch or harm Lauren? 'I plead the Fifth!'"
And according to private investigator Sheila Wysocki, someone has been making some strange postings on social media about Lauren's death.
"A lot of people had been posting comments that are not very nice and quite ugly and some people have been posting false information," said Wysocki. "The information is also coming from an IP address in Florida on the same street as Hannah and Aaron."
Crime Watch Daily traveled to Florida for answers. We tracked down Aaron and Hannah to their house in South Florida, where they moved one month after Lauren died. And they called the cops on us.
Aaron Lilly, Hannah Palmer and Chris Stout have never been considered suspects or charged in connection with Lauren Agee's death. And a judge dropped Hannah from Sherry's lawsuit.
Sherry Smith's key question remains unanswered: What really happened up on that cliff?
"I'm her voice. As her mother I have to be her voice, and I have to pursue the truth, because I owe that to her, right? I'm all she had and she would expect nothing less from me," said Sherry.
Criminal defense attorney Robert Bianchi discusses the death of Lauren Agee.