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Search resumes on Lanier for missing 13-year-old Buford boy
Cumming man arrested in boating accident that killed 9-year-old boy
0620Paul J Bennett
Paul J. Bennett

BUFORD— Authorities are back on Lake Lanier this morning to continue searching for 13-year-old Griffin Prince of Buford who went missing after a late Monday two-boat collision that killed his 9-year-old brother.

Paul J. Bennett, 44, of Cumming was charged in the 10:30 p.m. accident and is free on $5,000 bail. An Aug. 15 first-appearance hearing is set in Hall Magistrate Court.

Authorities have charged Bennett with boating under the influence. He is suspected of piloting a 21- to 22-foot center console fishing boat that rammed a pontoon boat driven by the boy's father, Michael Prince, and carrying 12 other people, including the boy's mother, in the Shoal Creek area of the lake near Buford Dam. The passengers included four adults and nine children.

Nine-year-old Jake Prince died at the scene.

The fishing boat struck the pontoon “basically head-on,” Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said.

Dive units from Hall County and other jurisdictions, including the Department of Natural Resources, were involved in search efforts. A news release from the DNR stated the crews were having issues with depths in excess of 100 feet as well as underwater trees, low visibility and not knowing exactly where the collision occurred.

They planned to continue the search at daylight today, using sonar, and putting divers in the water later this morning.

Bennett, whom authorities say left the scene shortly after the collision, was arrested at Bald Ridge Marina in Forsyth County after his boat was found about  1:30 a.m. Tuesday, Maj. Stephen Adams of the DNR’s law enforcement division said at a news conference Tuesday morning.

Bennett was taken into custody after a DNR ranger, on patrol at Bald Ridge Marina, noticed a fishing boat with suspicious damage. Bennett refused medical treatment following his arrest.

“When the lookout was given and the type of boat, he thought back to what he had seen and ... relayed that information to another ranger who went to the marina and did find the boat,” Adams said. “... And physical damage did indicate it was involved in a collision.”

Both boats were brought to DNR’s Lake Lanier offices at Aqualand Marina off Lights Ferry Road in South Hall. The bright red pontoon was severely damaged, with a long strip of punctured metal hanging from the right side. The left front of the fishing boat had a red smudge.

The boats “will be processed and we’re treating it as a crime scene,” Adams said.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh also was at the press conference but didn’t comment.

He said afterward, however, that “we’re working a complete investigation and we’ll evaluate further, once it’s completed, to determine whether any other charges should be forthcoming.”

Adams said the investigation is continuing and other charges are possible.

“There’s a duty to render aid to those who are injured, to whatever level that you are trained,” Adams said. “If that’s calling 911 or CPR, whatever. ... I don’t know how long he was on the scene prior to leaving.”

He added: “We haven’t determined who had the right of way in this incident.”

Attempts to reach Bennett for comment were not successful Tuesday.

A licensed master cosmetologist since 1993, he is the owner of Paul Bennett Studio in Johns Creek. A woman who answered the phone at the business said he would not be in Tuesday.

According to Forsyth County records, Bennett has had a couple of tax liens filed against him in recent years.

He sought bankruptcy protection in 2007, state records show, though the request was discharged a couple of months later.

His wife, Deborah, filed for divorce against him in April. The matter has not been resolved.

A woman who was with Bennett at the time of the crash is cooperating with authorities, Adams said.

Five other passengers on the pontoon boat, all of whom went into the water after the collision, were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, where they were treated and released.

The 9-year-old’s mother and two other children were among the injured. In all, 13 people from four families in Gwinnett County were on the pontoon boat when it was rammed.

Rescue crews were fortunate that so many agencies responded on the shoreline and in boats, including crews from Hall, Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, Kimbrell said.

Adams also said a doctor, who was nearby on his fishing boat, came to the scene to help treat injured boaters.

A Georgia State Patrol helicopter was also used to fly over the accident scene during the night using infrared technology in an attempt to locate passengers from the pontoon boat or the fishing boat, authorities said.

Rangers are in the process of interviewing people who were on the boat, and the DNR’s Critical Incident Reconstruction Team is piecing together how the accident happened.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is involved in the investigation.

Authorities initially worked the accident from Shoal Creek Camp in Buford and moved the operation later to corps property off Buford Dam Drive.

The Associated Press and Times regional staff contributed to this report.

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