The case of Lauren Agee is still very much an unsolved mystery to those who loved her. The twenty one year old criminal science major from Hendersonville, Tennessee, United States died when she attended Wakefest with friends and her death was ruled an accident. But due to some unanswered questions and a less than thorough investigation, there are certain aspects of her death that remain a mystery.
On the 25th of July 2015, Lauren went to Wakefest with her friend Hannah Palmer, Hannah’s boyfriend Aaron Lilly, and his friend Chris Stout. Lauren had just met Chris Stout for the first time that weekend. WakeFest is a grassroots wakeboarding tournament that takes place every year in Tennessee. It’s a three day party on Center Hill Lake which is around two hours outside of Nashville. Every year, professional wakeboarders take part and hundreds of fans attend to watch. At night, everyone parties and they camp out on houseboats and cabins around the local marina. Lauren told her mother Sherry Smith that they planned to stay in a cabin that weekend.
The weekend started off fun for Lauren. Lauren and Hannah uploaded pictures of themselves inside the car on the way to Wakefest on social media and she was seen by people at the event having fun.
That night, the night of the 25th of July, a security guard at Wakefest, Chris Yarchuk, saw Lauren at the bar. According to Chris, Lauren left the bar with Hannah, Aaron and Chris at 2am. Chris saw them walk down the dock by the lake. They then took a boat to their campsite. She was also seen that night by Kassi Franks. Kassi went to high school with Lauren and she saw Lauren on the dock and at the bar at the marina. Kassi said that Lauren made it clear to Chris that night that she wasn't interested in him. She wasn't looking to meet anyone as she had a boyfriend who she was very happy with. She just wanted to have fun with friends.
The campsite that Lauren was staying on was located on an outcropping across from the lake’s marina. On the outcropping, there is a 35 foot drop down to the lake on one side and a 90 foot drop to the lake on the other side.
According to Kassi, when Lauren found out they were sleeping on a cliff instead of inside a cabin, she asked Kassi if she could stay with her group. Kassi told True Crime Daily:
"Lauren did ask if she could go with my group, but I just, we didn't have any more room. That was the very last time I saw her."
Kassi said that she was worried about Lauren as she had slept on the cliff before and was aware that there was a hammock there that is tied loosely between two trees and dangles over the water which didn't seem safe. But as Kassi had no place to offer her at her cabin, Lauren went to the cliff with Hannah, Aaron and Chris.
The next afternoon, the 26th of July, Lynn Blair and his son Dylan went fishing on the lake and found the body of a young woman floating in the water. It was Lauren. She had not been reported missing by Hannah, Aaron or Chris. But Lauren's mother Sherry had tried to get in touch with her a number of times that day to no avail. She had called her daughter multiple times that morning and sent text messages such as "Hello, hey you." She heard nothing from Lauren and was worried about her before she received the devastating news that she was dead.
Police spoke to Hannah, Aaron and Chris. They told police that they had all been drinking the night before and were drunk by the time they got back to the campsite. Hannah told police that Lauren and Chris slept in the hammock which was near the edge of the cliff and she slept in a tent with Aaron. According to Hannah, when they woke up Lauren was gone. She insisted that she didn’t report her missing as she thought that Lauren went to meet someone. All of Lauren’s personal belongings including her flip flops, wallet and her cell phone were still at the campsite.
DeKalb County Sheriff's Department said it found no evidence of foul play and as such, they believed that Lauren fell off the edge of the cliff and either died from the fall or drowned. Lauren's blood alcohol level was found to be twice the legal limit. Her death was ruled an accident and the Medical Examiner determined that Lauren “fell from a cliff, landed on rocks and rolled into the lake.” The official report said that Lauren died of blunt force trauma from falling off a steep cliff into the lake, and possibly drowned.The case was closed.
It may have officially been closed but Lauren’s family certainly didn’t get any closure. Sherry wanted answers. She wanted to know how and why Hannah, Aaron and Chris went about their day on the 26th of July knowing that Lauren was no longer at the campsite. Why did they not report her missing? According to Sherry, she saw an Instagram post on Chris’s account. She said that it was posted on the 27th of July and showed Hannah and Aaron on a boat with the caption “Best weekend ever”. The caption was later changed to “Wakefest 2015 went pretty good this year, met some new friends, that made it awesome.”
Sherry began looking into her daughter’s death and hired private investigator Sheila Wysocki to carry her own inquiry and report. Sheila reviewed the Autopsy photos and saw what appeared to be a strange bite mark on one of Lauren's breasts. She believed that Lauren’s body showed signs of strangulation:
“Somebody choked her. Somebody either held her down or choked her.”
Sheila did not believe that Lauren's death was the result of an accidental drowning. The Autopsy revealed there was no water in Lauren's lungs. It was Sheila's belief that Lauren was dead before she was placed in the water. She is of the opinion that Lauren was either trying to get away or fighting and as a result of that, she fell back and her head was hit causing blunt force trauma and that was the cause of her death. There was also bruising on Lauren's thighs which Sheila believed may have been caused by someone kneeling on her, holding her down.
Sherry filed a wrongful death suit against Hannah, Aaron and Chris in an effort to force them to talk. They pled the Fifth. (The Fifth is when a person invites their right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution).
The complaint outlined the circumstances and details of Lauren's death. It alleged that Hannah, Aaron and Chris either intentionally, recklessly, or negligently caused Lauren's death.
The Detective who investigated Lauren's death, Detective Taylor, was deposed as part of the wrongful death suit and he was required to outline the investigation into Lauren's death. He admitted that he had never worked a homicide case and had no training in homicide investigation. The deposition revealed that there were a lot of things that could have happened in the aftermath of Lauren's death that just didn't. No rape test was conducted and Lauren's body was never swabbed for DNA and no DNA evidence was collected from under her fingernails. Detective Taylor did not interview the person who found Lauren and made the 911 call.He also did not speak to the residents of houseboats that were docked close to where Lauren's body was found or look for evidence on the rocks or in the water.
Sherry hired a hydrologist as part of her case. The hydrologist determined that if Lauren fell from the cliff where she was camping, it would have been impossible for her body to float against the current to the cove where her body was found.
Sherry also asked Mr Leiker to give his opinion as part of the suit. He is a former police officer who now does "investigative and consulting work, including homicide investigations." In his declaration, he opined that Lauren's death was a homicide, the homicide was covered up by Hannah, Aaron and Chris and that the police investigation was insufficient. He pointed to a number of factors such as:
1. There was no water found in Lauren's lungs.
2. There were injuries to Lauren's body that indicate that she was involved in a struggle prior to her death, and are not consistent with a fall;
i. There are symmetrical injuries to Lauren's back. These symmetrical marks consistent with a body being dragged.
ii. Lauren's clothes and injuries are inconsistent with a fall. Lauren's injuries do not include scrapes on the uncovered portions of her body as would be expected if a person had fallen through the brush that was present on the hillside.
A Judge dismissed Sherry's wrongful death lawsuit against Hannah on the basis that there was insufficient evidence. But the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned that decision. That means that Sherry and Lauren's family have a right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against Hannah, Aaron and Chris.
Hannah, Aaron and Chris deny any involvement in Lauren's death and were never charged with any wrongdoing.