On August 20, 2010, employees in the dive shop at Vortex Spring, north of Ponce de Leon, Florida, United States, noticed that a pickup truck had remained in the shop's parking lot for the previous two days. It belonged to Ben McDaniel (born April 15, 1980), a Tennesseean who had been diving regularly at the spring while living in his parents' nearby beach house. He had last been seen by two of those employees on the evening of August 18, on a dive entering a cave 58 feet (18 m) below the water's surface. While he was initially believed to have drowned on that dive, and his parents still strongly believe his body is in an inaccessible reach of the extensive cave system, no trace of him has ever been found. The state of Florida issued his family a death certificate in 2013.McDaniel had been living at his parents' beach house on the Emerald Coast during what they called a "sabbatical" in the wake of a divorce, a business failure, and the death of his younger brother two years earlier. An avid diver since his teens, he had been a regular at the spring, where he had apparently been covertly exploring the cave despite lacking the required certification. Lengthy searches have only located some anomalously placed and filled decompression tanks; many of the divers who took part in those searches believe that if McDaniel is indeed dead, his body is not in the cave as he was too large to enter its narrower passages. The McDaniels devoted their family's extensive financial resources to the search, at one point guaranteeing the replacement cost of a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV). A reward they offered was rescinded in 2012 after the death of another diver who may have been trying to collect it, vindicating the criticism of the divers who had warned of that possibility and resented the McDaniels' insinuation that those who had searched for their son at great personal risk had not been "brave" enough.Although the McDaniels continue to believe Ben's body is in an area of the cave beyond the reach of current search capabilities, they have also entertained the possibility that his death was not an accident but the result of foul play. A private investigator they hired believes that his body may have been removed before any authorities were contacted, or that he may even have been murdered on land and the narrative of his disappearance fabricated as a cover story. The family believes that the suspicious, supposedly accidental, death of Vortex Spring's owner Lowell Kelly late in 2011 is related to the case. They have also criticized the local police investigation as inadequate, particularly a lie detector test passed by the employee who was the last person known to have seen Ben alive.
A segment of Investigation Discovery's Disappeared has been devoted to the case, as well as Ben's Vortex, a documentary co-directed by diver Jill Heinerth. In addition to the accident and murder theories, the documentary also considers the possibility that Ben staged the disappearance to escape a troubled recent past that included a divorce and financial setbacks. The McDaniels have vehemently rejected that theory, pointing to the dog and girlfriend he left behind as well as doubting that he would have knowingly subjected them to that level of grief after seeing how his brother's death had affected them.
In the late 2000s Ben McDaniel was going through a difficult period in his life. The oldest of three sons born to Shelby and Patty McDaniel, a wealthy couple who lived in Collierville, Tennessee, outside Memphis, he had returned to live with his parents after his marriage ended in divorce and his construction business failed, the latter leaving him with tax debts of almost $50,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and the state of Tennessee. He was also still grieving for his younger brother Paul, a frequent rock climbing partner during their youth, who died in 2008 at the age of 22 from a stroke. Ben had found Paul unconscious in the family home and tried to revive him; he later became active in raising money for the foundation his parents established to support research into prevention and treatment of strokes.The McDaniels suggested their son take a sabbatical, offering to support him financially while he and his dog, a chocolate Labrador he had rescued, lived in the family's beach home at Santa Rosa Beach on the Emerald Coast of the Florida Panhandle. He accepted the offer and moved into the house in April 2010. His parents and girlfriend say the move was proving beneficial, as Ben was beginning to think and talk about moving on from his recent personal setbacks.
Relocating to the Gulf Coast allowed Ben to indulge in his preferred hobby, scuba diving. He had first taken it up at the age of 15, practicing with his tanks in the family pool. Despite living on the coast during his sabbatical, he preferred to dive in fresh water, becoming a frequent visitor to Vortex Spring, located inland a short distance north of Ponce de Leon.At Vortex Spring, which claims on its website to be the largest diving facility in the state, divers descend into clear waters at a constant temperature of 68 °F (20 °C) fed by the Floridan Aquifer. Diving instruction is offered for all levels; experienced divers come for the underwater wildlife and the cavern, which begins at 58 feet (18 m) below the surface. All divers are required to present proof of open-water certification and sign a release of liability.
For the most experienced divers, some of whom come from around the world, the main attraction of Vortex Spring is the cave, which starts 300 feet (91 m) from the cavern, at a depth of 115 feet (35 m). At the entrance is a sign depicting the Grim Reaper and warning divers that the consequences of continuing past that point could be fatal. The cave continues, steadily narrowing, to a locked gate almost 300 feet (91 m) from the entrance. The dive shop gives the key only to those who can show that they have cave diving certification, which requires two months' training including 125 dives with an instructor or certified diving partner. This policy was instituted after the deaths of 13 divers in the cave during the 1990s, in response to threats from the state to ban diving in the cave entirely. Starting from the gate, over 1,600 feet (490 m) through the area's limestone bedrock have been mapped, to a depth of 310 feet (94 m); the cave's full extent is not known. At some points the passage narrows to 10 inches (25 cm), requiring divers who would pass through to take off their tanks and hold them at their sides or in front, and twist their bodies.McDaniel's dives at the site were regular enough that the dive shop employees and other frequent visitors came to know him. One of the employees, Chuck Cronin, believed that while McDaniel had the proper equipment and considerable diving knowledge, he was often overly confident in his abilities and not shy about saying so. That opinion, the Memphis Commercial Appeal later reported, was shared by posters on a scuba diving website, scubaboard.com, who had also met Ben during trips to Vortex Spring. (According to a 2014 online comment by his father, he could not find anyone at Vortex Spring willing to be his diving partner, so he did his dives alone.) His parents later defended him from those criticisms by seeing them as positive traits. "Ben was brave," his father later said. "Ben was fearless. He followed his passions."McDaniel was not the only person associated with Vortex Spring at the time facing serious legal issues. Lowell Kelly, at the time the owner of Vortex Spring, was facing criminal charges. He had allegedly taken a temporary employee who he said owed him thousands of dollars out into an isolated wooded area and attempted to beat him with a baseball bat to make him pay up. The man escaped, and prosecutors later charged Kelly with assault and kidnapping in the incident.
In mid-August, four months into his Florida sojourn, Ben returned to Tennessee for a week. His parents and girlfriend, Emily Greer, said he seemed optimistic. He told them he was working on getting certified as an instructor so he could find a job and that he was researching cave diving with an eye toward getting that certification as well. On his nights out with Greer, he told her of plans to eventually start a diving-related business. On the weekend of August 14–15, he returned to Florida, leaving behind a letter thanking his parents for the sabbatical and promising to look after them as they grew older. They never saw him again.On August 18, the Wednesday after he returned to the Santa Rosa Beach house, he went up to Vortex Spring again. In the middle of the day, he did one dive. Other divers saw him looking closely at the area around the cave entrance, as if, it was later reported, he was planning something. After resurfacing he filled his tanks at the dive shop, a transaction recorded on security cameras (it is not known what he filled those tanks with). He spent much of the rest of the afternoon by himself alongside the spring, witnesses said, testing equipment and making notes in his dive log.The day had been hot, with temperatures around 90 °F (32 °C), and as evening came Ben began preparing for another dive. He called his mother on his cell phone, the last contact he had with his family. Around 7:30 p.m., as the sun began to set, he went in again.Cronin and fellow employee Eduardo Taran, on their way back from a dive themselves – something they often did on Wednesdays after the shop closed – saw Ben as he began descending, with his lights on and wearing a helmet, suggesting he was venturing into the cave. Taran, who had suspected for some time that Ben was forcing the gate open, went down to him and unlocked it, watching Ben go in and then returning to Cronin. No one is known to have seen him since.On some nights when they had seen Ben dive late, the two had stayed at the spring after resurfacing until they saw bubbles on the surface, indicating that he was beginning to decompress in order to safely resurface. But on the night of the 18th, they instead went back to Taran's house for coffee.Ben's truck was still in the parking lot the next morning, but with many summer visitors coming to enjoy the site's many water-based recreational opportunities and picnic grounds in addition to diving, the employees were (or later claimed to have been) too busy to notice. They did see the truck the next morning. After determining that no one else had seen Ben, Taran called the Holmes County sheriff's office.
Upon arrival, the sheriff's deputies sealed off the spring with crime-scene tape. Ben's tanks, wet suit and other diving equipment were not present and there were no signs of a struggle near his truck or anywhere else he could have been. His wallet, with almost $1,100 in cash, and cell phone were in the cab of his truck; dive logs showed that he had explored the cave and a map he made was also found. At the Santa Rosa Beach house officers found his dog, hungry from having been unfed for two days. Based on these circumstances, police and dive shop employees assumed that he had never resurfaced and had in all probability drowned somewhere in the cave trying to get out. Cadaver dogs alerted on the water surface, further supporting that theory.As the word of a missing diver in the Vortex Spring cave got out, other cave divers came for what they assumed would be a recovery operation, taking advantage of the weekend. The McDaniels were called, and they drove down to Florida, along with Greer, to watch what they could from the shore. News media in the Panhandle and Memphis followed the search closely.Divers scoured the cave, looking in every small crevice and fissure where Ben might have crawled in a panicked attempt to get out as his tanks ran low, a pattern found in other cave diving deaths; many said later that they felt they had risked their own lives to do so. But over the ensuing weekend they found no sign of Ben.They did, however, find some of his equipment. Two tanks known to belong to McDaniel were found near the entrance to the cave. But this discovery struck some searchers as inconsistent with Ben's supposed intent to explore the cave he was technically not permitted to enter. Most cave divers place their extra air tanks, which they need for decompression, at points along their route so they can follow them out, not at the entrance to the cave. And when tested, the tanks were found to contain just air, not the specialized gas mix Ben would have been likely to use had he been researching cave diving as his parents said he had been.By Sunday, August 22, no other signs of Ben had been found. A text message was sent to Edd Sorenson, a veteran cave diver and recovery specialist with hundreds of dives to his credit, on his yacht in the Bahamas, where he was leading an expedition. He came to Vortex Springs the next day. Other divers, and an official with an international cave-diving rescue organization, told him it was too dangerous to go any further than they already had.Sorenson, who has been described by the Tampa Bay Times as being able to go where other divers cannot, persisted. He made three separate dives that day, going (by his account) 1,700 feet (520 m) into the cave, 200 feet (61 m) further than those sections Ben had mapped, using a diver propulsion vehicle and smaller tanks to increase his range. He found nothing – no body, and no evidence of one such as increased activity by carnivorous aquatic scavengers, nor any evidence that Ben had gotten into those sections, such as marks on the cave walls or disturbed silt.Ben was 6 feet 1 inch (185 cm) tall and weighed 210 pounds (95 kg), one inch (2.5 cm) taller and 20 pounds (9.1 kg) heavier than Sorenson. Without cave diving training, Sorenson said, there was no way Ben could have gotten through some of the narrower passages, called restrictions by divers, in the cave. "I know what I'm doing and I barely made it through," he told the Commercial Appeal. "The last place I searched was pristine, without a mark that a diver had been there. It would be impossible to go through that restriction without making a mark on the floor or ceiling. He's not in there."The McDaniels did what they could to help the search. They hired Steve Keene, who had originally mapped the Vortex Spring cave in 2003, to look. After seven dives, he apologized to the McDaniels for not finding any fresh sign of Ben. "If he's in there, I don't know where he'd be," he said later. They agreed to put up $54,000 to guarantee the cost of replacing a remotely operated underwater vehicle brought to the spring by the Fort Lauderdale police, in case it was lost in the cave. (Due to technical issues, it was unable to go any farther than the human divers had ventured.) In total, 16 divers spent 36 straight days looking for Ben's body in the cave with no results. Volunteer searches continued afterwards at the spring through November, often with the McDaniels and Greer in attendance.With the cave thoroughly searched, some divers began questioning whether Ben was there at all. Perhaps his body had been secretly removed from the cave before searching began and disposed of on land or it had washed out through the spring's outlet. Others, including Cronin and Kelly, suggested he had staged his own disappearance to start his life over under another identity and escape his past troubles. Authorities began to consider these possibilities and adjust their search.The cadaver dogs searched the woods around Vortex Spring without success. Assisted by helicopters, they searched the swamps along the spring's outflow into Blue Creek and Sandy Creek to the Choctawhatchee River. Thirty separate tests of the water over the next several months showed no sign of an increase in the bacteria that would indicate the presence of a decomposing human body. Taran, who said he had let Ben into the cave despite knowing he lacked certification to dive in it, passed a lie detector test of his account.
Reward offer and controversy
Frustrated by the limitations the search had thus far encountered, and increasingly coming to believe that Ben's body was in an area of the cave no one had yet reached, the McDaniels offered a reward of $10,000, raised from money contributed at a benefit held on what would have been their son's 31st birthday, at the end of the year to anyone "brave" enough to go to those places and find it. The insinuation of cowardice alienated divers who had already risked their lives searching the cave, and raised fears among them that it would only encourage untrained divers to enter the cave and take potentially fatal risks for the reward money. Undeterred, the McDaniels increased the award, twice.In March 2012, by which time the reward had been increased to $30,000, the fears of the cave divers were realized. Two days before the Investigation Discovery cable channel series Disappeared aired a segment on Ben's case, a diver from Biloxi, Mississippi, Larry Higginbotham, died in the cavern at Vortex Spring. His body was found the next day after he, too, had failed to return from a dive. "He just got himself in a pinch and couldn't find his way back out", said one of the divers who recovered the body.There was no explicit evidence that Higginbotham was trying to find Ben and claim the reward. The divers who recovered his body believed he was, however. "He was found near a shovel left near a restriction so small that no one could get through it," said Sorenson, who had pulled Higginbotham's body back through four tight restrictions.The following month, amid increasing criticism, the McDaniels rescinded the reward offer. "Not only did it endanger the lives of divers who would risk going farther than they should," said Sorenson, who was by then even more firmly convinced that their son had not died in the cave, "it put all of our lives at risk because we have to go in to recover the bodies." By that time the McDaniels had also come to believe that, if he had not died in the cave, Ben had been murdered. A phone tip line they set up had not received any calls, and no one who had not yet said anything was likely to be further motivated to do so, they said. (Ben's father elaborated the following year that the family was told to rescind the reward while in the Vortex Spring area for exactly this reason.)
Death of Lowell Kelly
In 2011 Kelly disposed of the charges against him by pleading no contest. In return he was fined and sentenced to seven years of probation. He did not live long enough to complete even one of those years.During a chili cook-off he was hosting at Vortex Spring in December, Kelly reportedly fell down the stairs and hurt his head. A person present took him to his home in Ponce de Leon, where he helped Kelly shower and, afterwards, put a blanket over him and left him to rest in the bathtub. In the morning, a different person came to the house, and found his condition had worsened overnight. Emergency medical services responded to a call and took him to a hospital in Pensacola.Kelly remained comatose, and after his condition did not improve he was transferred to hospice care, where he died the following month. The Holmes County sheriff's office, which had also been the lead agency investigating the McDaniel disappearance, implied that it had not gotten the full story of what had occurred the night of Kelly's injury and that it had some questions it wanted answered. However, police would not name the individuals who had taken Kelly home and found him there in the morning. The sheriff's office also refused to release the autopsy report to the Northwest Florida Daily News despite its status as a public record under Florida's sunshine laws; it claimed that release of the report would compromise an ongoing investigation.
In 2011, with it looking unlikely that Ben's body would be found in the cave, the McDaniels began considering the possibility that he had died not in a diving accident but as a result of foul play, and that the disappearance might have been staged to cover that up (or at the very least he had been found dead by the dive shop staff, who feared the consequences of that discovery). They hired a Florida private investigator, Lynn-Marie Carty, who found that other people associated with Vortex Spring besides Kelly had criminal records. "There is just as much reason to look above the water for Ben's body as there was to look below it in the cave," she told the Commercial Appeal.Some other events reported to have occurred on the day Ben disappeared supported that theory. Kelly said shortly afterwards that on that evening, a man he described as "wild-eyed" and apparently drunk showed up at the shop and asked if it was too late to dive; the possibility has been raised that this man, if he existed, may have been involved. Earlier that day, a diver had had a confrontation with several teenagers on the property about their drinking; they eventually left but may have come back in an attempt to exact revenge.
Among the divers who heard about the case was Jill Heinerth, a Canadian who has set the world record for deepest dive by a woman. Afterwards, she and her husband Robert McClellan, both certified cave divers and documentary filmmakers, went to Vortex Spring to make a short video. They hoped to show it to the McDaniel family in the hopes of giving them a better understanding of the risks associated with cave diving, and "closure", as Heinerth put it. At the time she believed that Ben, whatever his fate, was not in the cave's depths.But then during the research process, she was able to read Ben's dive logs and the map he had made. She realized that he had, in fact, gotten very far into the cave. Knowing that divers in trouble will often burrow deeper into narrow crevices such as those within the cave in a mistaken effort to get back to the surface, she revised her opinion. "I simply see no reasonable evidence that he is NOT in the cave," the Commercial Appeal quoted her as writing in an email.She and McClellan turned their private video short into a feature-length documentary, Ben's Vortex, released in 2012. It considers all the theories regarding its subject's disappearance: an accident as originally believed, a murder or coverup of the accident as the McDaniels have sometimes alleged, and the possibility of a staged disappearance to allow Ben to escape his problems, which McClellan believes.Shelby does not believe Ben had any intention of abandoning his life. He had left his dog in Santa Rosa Beach and had not given Greer any indication of such plans. Shelby also noted that Ben had seen the impact Paul's death had had on his parents. "After what we went through with Paul, we know our son well enough to know he wouldn't put us through that again," his mother told the Commercial Appeal.