Tammy and Dennis Watters were headed for Oklahoma on Friday, the next stop on their latest tour of locations around the nation in need of their special underwater-search skills.
They had been unable to locate the automatic rifle allegedly used in an active-shooter incident last month in Warren County that wounded the suspect’s father and a sheriff’s deputy and that placed the area on lockdown.
Mohammed Laghaoui, 19, remains in the Warren County Jail on $2 million bond, charged with the attempted murder of Deputy Katie Barnes, along with a series of other charges for which he could serve up to 68 years in prison.
But the missing gun is a key piece of evidence prosecutors would like to have before going to trial.
“We’re trying to make sure we’ve exhausted every possible way,” Major Steve Arrasmith, investigative commander for the Warren County Sheriff’s Office said.
After coming up empty with more traditional search methods, local authorities turned to Team Watters.
“We’ll be coming back to get this gun,” Dennis Watters said. “We want to make sure this gun isn’t in someone else’s hand to commit another crime.”
Accidental crime fighters
Team Watters’ discoveries sometimes help solve crimes. Other times, they bring relief to families otherwise left to wonder what happened to missing loved ones.
“They’ve helped bring closure for a lot of families,” Travis Martin, a lieutenant with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Last month, the team helped locate the body of a Texas woman, missing since May.
In 2014, after a prolonged search of ponds north of Columbus in Delaware County, they located a car missing for nine years and still containing the body of Tony Luzio.
“They have assisted law enforcement many times, not just in Ohio but across the nation,” Martin said.
To offset expenses, the Watterses formed a 501c3 nonprofit that collects $10,000 a year in donations “if we’re lucky.” The work also helps market the technology, while giving the couple a feeling of doing a greater good.
The team most often works in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“We’ve done jobs in just about every state,” Watters said. “This year, we’ve been exceptionally busy.”
Crime-fighting fish finder
Watters parlayed lessons learned working with his father during traditional dragging operations after drownings in developing the underwater search technology.
Team Watters Sonar Search & Recovery is an Illinois-based non-profit formed in 2005 after the couple was able to use a fish finder to help recover a car and the body of a retired schoolteacher who had disappeared three years before in the Mississippi River in Alton, Ill.
“Immediately, we began getting calls from all across the country for similar-type cases,” he said.
Since then, they have floated their specially outfitted boat in lakes and other waterways around the U.S., uncovering hundreds of vehicles, 81 bodies and 10 to 15 guns.
“They’re very hard to find, because they are so small,” Watters said, while adding the missing AK-47 would be larger, thus a more likely find.
They use side-image sonar designed to locate fish and software that crystallizes the resulting images.
Once spotted, the objects are located using GPS and recovered by divers or a salvage operation.
Last time Team Watters was in Warren County, Watters said they located a gun safe stolen in a burglary and dumped off a bridge over Caesar Creek Lake.
“We’ve done a lot of work up there,” he said.
Watters said no gun was located this time, but he was able to follow the trail left by divers who had already assisted in the dragging of Landen Lake.
“We can actually see the footprints they left behind,” said Watters, who also sells the technology to fishermen and law-enforcement agencies.
Team plans to return to Warren County
After searching Landen Lake in the Laghaoui case, Watters said the team, working with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Watercraft, searched a smaller pond, the last one where authorities believe the gun could have been thrown during about seven hours Laghaoui was on the loose.
“We did not find anything that looked suspicious out there,” he said.“That’s doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It just means we didn’t see it.”
While continuing to search area lakes, investigators in the Laghaoui case are also looking into the possibility that he handed off the gun to someone else before returning to the crime scene, where he was arrested without incident.
Watters declined to elaborate on their next stop, other than to say it was in support of an active homicide investigation in Oklahoma.
He said they continue fine-tuning their technology and plan to employ new tricks in their next trip to Warren County to assist in the Laghaoui case by finding the gun or ruling out the lake “once and for all.”
Staff writer Ed Richter contributed to this report.