Almost 35 years after Helen Holladay vanished after a fight with her husband, authorities have pulled what they believe was the family’s pickup from Lake Granbury, uncovering a skeleton inside.
“We pulled the vehicle out of the water, and we started sifting through the sediment that had settled into the cab and we found the skeletal remains of a body,” Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds said.
“Upon digging all through the afternoon into the night, we found a complete skeleton and some identifying information that was also in there that ties the skeleton and that truck to Helen Holladay.”
Although a cause of death was not immediately clear, Deeds said the case is being investigated as a homicide.
Holladay was last seen alive Sept. 29, 1979, when neighbors reported she’d been in a bloody struggle with her husband, Herman Holladay, at their weekend residence, a motor home at Whippoorwill Bay on Lake Granbury.
Herman Holladay told investigators that his wife, 45, drove off toward Granbury in the family’s 1973 Chevrolet pickup.
“Early on in the investigation, the husband was looked at as a suspect but he was never charged with a crime,” Deeds said. “We never got any evidence to tie him to it.”
Helen Holladay was declared dead in 1986. Her husband died later.
Through the years, authorities had searched Lake Granbury from the air, with a boat using special sonar equipment, and with divers, looking for Holladay and another man missing from the area, but with no success.
About 11:30 a.m. Thursday, a Granbury city employee reported seeing a vehicle sticking out of the lake a few feet from shore and not far from Pearl Street and the former site of the Brazos motel.
Stepfather ‘violent, abusive’
“It’s not a shock, but it is saddening to find out that this is what happened,” Helen Holladay’s daughter, Karen Boatwright Stuart, 60, said Friday in phone interview with the Star-Telegram.
Her stepfather was “was violent, abusive and he put [Helen Holladay] in the hospital several times,” Stuart said. “My mother put her hand through the window trying to get away from their motor home. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’ve always thought that Herman Holladay did something to her.”
Stuart said her mother was afraid of Herman Holladay and left him several times. He would take parts from her car and knock on her door all night to get Helen Holladay to come back home to him, Stuart said.
The Holladays had a motor home near Lake Granbury and a house in Fort Worth, Stuart said.
Herman Holladay “would always tell her that he would kill her and take her property,” Stuart said.
The official handling the initial investigation said her mother left of her own accord and there was nothing he could do, Stuart said. She told authorities that her mother did not have the money to hide out and was not a strong enough person to leave, Stuart said. She called another police department for help, but they declined citing jurisdictional issues.
“If [an official] refuses to interview someone and they tell you that your mother left of her own accord, there is nothing you can do,” said Stuart.
Three days after her mother disappeared, Stuart said, she got a call from Herman Holladay asking if she and Helen Holladay had been together. That week sheriff’s deputies and relatives went by the motor home at the lake to look for her mother but found nothing, Stuart said.
“My grandparents and my uncle talked and talked to the deputies, but nothing happened,” Stuart said. “My grandmother said that blood was running down the door” of the motor home.”
Exposed by low water
Low lake levels brought on by the drought revealed the pickup’s resting spot. At normal lake levels, the area where the vehicle was found would have been in 15 to 16 feet of murky water and about 15 feet from the normal shoreline, Deeds said.
“The top half of [the pickup] is rotted,” Deeds said. “A lot of the side walls of the bed are pretty well gone but the cab and very back end with the tailgate, which was sticking out of the water.”
The Brazos River Authority and Granbury Police Department assisted the sheriff’s department with the recovery, Deeds said.
Authorities will use DNA samples provided by Holladay’s two daughters in 2008 to identify the remains, he said.
“We can’t say 100 percent this is her at this point,” Deeds said, but because of the make of the pickup, the female remains, and a purse and clothing found, “it does appear it’s going to be her.”
“We’ve never stopped the investigation. It’s gone cold a number of times,” Deeds said. “We might never know what exactly happened to her but we’re going to be working on that, too.”
The place where the pickup was found is not near a roadway, making it unlikely that the pickup ended up in the lake because of a wreck, Deeds said.
“Somebody put a lot of effort into getting it in that way,” he said. “Whether she did it herself or something else happened, I don’t know. The investigation will continue.”
Deeds said the discovery has left sheriff’s investigators “somewhat very happy because we’re able to give the family some closure.”
“We don’t have an exact cause of death yet but we’re working on it. The daughter that one of my investigators talked to was very happy, too,” Deeds said. “She’s gone for several years with the unknown of where her mom is.
“It looks like we finally found her mom.”