More than a year after she went missing, the Panola County Sheriff’s Office still does not know what happened to Lauren Thompson.
The mother of three called 911 on the afternoon of Jan. 10 in distress, saying she was in a wooded area and thought someone was chasing her. But her cell phone died during that call, and law enforcement officers were not able to find her in the Rock Hill area where her cell phone had last pinged her location.
Numerous, widespread law enforcement searches of the woods where she was last reported to be have not turned up a whole lot of evidence, Panola County Sheriff Kevin Lake said, but his office continues to investigate the case and hopes they can figure out what happened.
“I’m a man of faith,” Lake said. “I believe in praying. We solicit prayers to find Lauren for everyone involved, for her family. It’s hard for me to not be able to tell her family, give them some closure — and that’s what we want to do.”
Lauren’s family, too, is hopeful that answers can be found.
“Obviously not knowing is difficult in this situation,” Lauren’s dad, G.W. Colvin, said. Colvin says it’s especially difficult for Lauren’s three children, ages 4, 6 and 10.
“It’s really difficult to try and explain to them exactly what is going on and what the situation is,” he said.
Lake said the scant evidence they’ve been able to gather has not pointed to foul play, although that doesn’t mean a crime wasn’t committed. Lake also said they don’t know if Lauren stayed in those woods or found a road and left the area.
“That’s the million dollar question, I guess. We really don’t know,” Lake said. “The last known location is where we were searching, and we searched those areas. We re-searched those areas.”
A big problem for the investigation is that the area where Lauren went missing — and really the whole county — was heavily flooded at the time. Lake said some areas were completely unsearchable because of rain and flooding until they dried out a few months later. Law enforcement officers have searched more than 2,000 acres of dense woods on foot and about 8,000 acres by air, including helicopters and drones. But the wooded area where Lauren went missing, Lake noted, was very difficult to search.
Search teams have included law enforcement officers from surrounding agencies, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, as well as a search dog network.
“That’s something that was really important to our office, to begin with,” Lake said. “We had a lot of local people offering to search too, not that we don’t appreciate that and there’s times that that’s utilized — but when we have teams that are available to come that are used to dealing with and trained to deal with crime scenes and we have the potential to have a crime scene, obviously that’s who we want on the ground so we don’t contaminate everything.”
“Having said all that,” Lake added later, “it brings us back around to the point of she could still be in that area, she could be somewhere else — because we don’t know for sure that she didn’t make it to the road and get a ride.”
The sheriff’s office has also completed a DNA profile with help from Lauren’s family and has gotten that information entered into national databases.
“That helps if remains are found anywhere in the nation — that now we have that DNA profile to go with the missing persons case,” Lake said.
Lake said last year his office had no proof of foul play, and he said the evidence today still does not point in that direction.
“I think that was really a hot topic at one time — something like this happens, how can you say there’s no foul play involved?” Lake said. “We can speculate. But it’s not our job to speculate. We’re fact-finders, and so we have not collected any evidence to make us confirm that foul play is involved. Could there be foul play involved? Absolutely, and that’s why we’re so concerned about preserving if we find a crime scene.”
But Lake said he does not believe that Lauren would decide to disappear and start a new life, because he does not think she would have abandoned her children.
He also said his department does not plan to release the evidence it has collected, such as the 911 call.
“We’ve not released that to the public because it is evidence and we don’t know if we have a crime or not,” Lake said. “We’ve been asked numerous times to release the 911 call, and we’re not going to do that. Is it because there’s something to hide? No, it’s not because there’s something to hide. It’s because that’s one of the only pieces of evidence that we have.”
Lake said speculation that gunfire can be heard on the call or that Lauren got shot while calling 911 is wrong.
“That’s not the 911 call that I listened to,” Lake said. “I don’t believe that happened. Do I believe that she was in distress? Absolutely.”
Joey Ortega, a private investigator, is working with the Colvin family on the investigation and acting as their spokesperson. Ortega said a lot of the work he’s done has been to try to shift through the information that’s come in and develop new leads, as well as clarifying conflicting information or statements.
“It opened the door to realizing that some people that were initially glossed over might have merited further scrutiny and certain alibis reexamined,” he said, noting that the information he gets is passed on to the sheriff’s office.
Ortega is hopeful that Lauren can be found.
“I have no qualms in saying that there’s not anything to say that — I know statistically these things don’t always end with the way we would want them to, especially as parents — but setting aside all of the rumors and all the conjecture and innuendo and looking at some of the leads that they have gone through and some of the new leads that I had developed, not only am I hopeful personally that we can find resolution here, but that there’s nothing to say that finding her alive is an impossibility. I have not, by no means, given up on that.”
Something that both Lake and Ortega expressed frustration over was a push from other outside parties not involved in the investigation to spread conspiracy theories or rumors about the case.
“The unfortunate part about that is we get really far-fetched tips that result from that,” Lake said. “But we have to check into them. So we’re exhausting a lot of time and resources looking into things that we know are very far-fetched. But we can’t not check it out. So really we’re spending a lot of time chasing rabbits whenever we could be working on something legitimate.”
Ortega said he hopes he can help re-center the investigation after all that chaos, making sure that the Colvin family and the sheriff’s office work together.
“As we’re working to sort of re-order the chaos and try to bring a new continuity to our conversations and a steady flow of information, just making sure it goes both ways and making them feel OK to sort of give us a bit more than what was given before,” Ortega said. “That’s been a bit of a challenge, but at the same time it hasn’t been fruitless.”
Baseless theories and speculation “pushed this chaos to places where it need not be,” Ortega said.
“But a lot of times in a lot of these cases where there’s sort of a lot of speculation and rumor and other stuff, I feel like sometimes it’s clear that law enforcement sometimes can have a hand in preventing that too by not always holding everything close to the vest too, letting some information out to allow people to understand what law enforcement is doing. There is some aspects of the investigation you want to sort of keep under the vest and not put out there to the world, again crime isn’t a reality show here, but again they work for the public. They answer to the public and most important they answer to the family.”
Do You Know Something?
Lake, Lauren’s parents and Ortega have all asked the public to report to the sheriff’s office anything they might know that could help the investigation. A $5,000 reward for information that helps authorities find Lauren also still stands.
“Really, there’s not anything other than we’ve already requested that if anybody has any little tidbit of information, whether they think it’s relevant or not, they could come forward and submit that to Sheriff Lake and his team so it can be investigated,” G.W. Colvin said. “Of course, the prayers that have been offered up thus far and any in the future, they have been appreciated and will be appreciated. We’ve felt support from the community and we are very appreciative of everything that has been done locally and by local law enforcement to help locate our daughter.”
Lake said his department’s primary focus in the case is finding Lauren.
“If anybody knows anything that they have not reported, then we beg you to call and give us that information so we can look into it,” Lake said.