Chattahoochee dreamin’: land a trout, quaff a brew, find a body

Ah, the ‘Hooch.

It’s sunny afternoons floating on inner tubes. It’s misty mornings casting a trout line. It’s even quaffing some brewskies on its banks. Ask singer Alan Jackson. He learned “a lot ‘bout livin’ and a little ‘bout love” there.

Then again, the past week reminds us there’s also a dark and disconcerting side to the river that winds from Lake Lanier southwest to Alabama.

On Monday, a badly decomposed body, still unidentified late in the week, was pulled from the muddy waters of the Chattahoochee River near Six Flags. Three days earlier, near the St. Ives Country Club in Johns Creek, boaters found a body that was snagged, one recounted, “over a log by her stomach.” At first, the boater noticed blue jeans in the current and then saw a tattoo on her back. It was a 56-year-old Johns Creek woman who had drowned.

Newspaper files through the decades describe a macabre stream of similar stories, typically found in the News Briefs: Unidentified Body Pulled from Chattahoochee.

Usually, they drowned. They fell from boats. Their waders filled with water. They tried to ford knee-deep waters and were pulled away by the surprisingly strong current. Some were over-served. Some tried to swim across the chilly river. Some yelled those infamous last words: “Hey, watch this!”

Other times, grisly discoveries turn into real-life CSI episodes. Two years ago, a body that was found downstream from Ray’s on the River (nothing to do with that establishment, just a geographical point of reference) had been duct-taped inside a comforter. Another case, years ago, was called, the “garbage bag murders,” for the killer’s method of disposing of his victims.

That’s the Chattahoochee, the full story, a lot ‘bout livin’ and a little ‘bout dyin’.

The river is a big part of our lives, bringing in more than 3 million visitors each year to the 48 miles of national park that stretch from Buford Dam on Lake Lanier’s south end down to Atlanta.

“Getting next to flowing water is powerful; it’s primordial,” said John Lane, an author and professor at Wofford College who takes freshmen out on canoe trips to introduce them to their primordialism. “There’s a strong sense that we are animals. There’s something psychologically soothing about it.

“But there’s also the raw side, the unpredictable side. There’s a reality to that.”

Gwinnett fire Lt. Derrick James, leader of a swift-water rescue team near Lake Lanier, is often busy rescuing folks who underestimated the ‘Hooch. That’s especially frequent in the miles just downstream of the dam that releases thousands of gallons a second.

“The water becomes very violent, very quickly,” said James. “And the other thing that gets people is the water is cold. It doesn’t take long in 50-degree water to have a difficulty to swim.”

For those who succumb, “the river can hide people,” said James. “If they’re under water and in a strainer, you don’t find them until the water recedes.”

A “strainer,” he explained, is submerged debris “where water goes through and people don’t.”

Drowning in the Chattahoochee is age-old. During fighting leading up to the Battle of Atlanta, three Union armies crossed the river during armed skirmishes, but no one was killed said Michael Hitt, a Roswell police officer and also a historian.

However, he said, Private Mason Bryant, a farm boy from Illinois, drowned in the river while bathing. His body, it seems, was never accounted for.

Scott Pfeninger, chief of operations at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, said there have been 21 deaths in the park since 2006, including two so far this year and five last year. (The body found last week near Six Flags was outside the park’s boundaries and doesn’t count.) The park’s webpage warns: “Rising River Waters Can Kill!”

Rangers and law enforcement agencies — the park runs through four counties and nine municipalities — are often piecing together cases or deciding if they even have a case. A pedestrian walking over a bridge will report an overturned kayak. Is there a body to be found, “or maybe it’s nothing, just a boat that got away,” Pfeninger said.

“Sometimes people just come here to die,” he said. “It’s a tough way to die, drowning. Sometimes they go unfound for weeks.”

That the river “hides” bodies is not lost on criminals.

“A river like the Chattahoochee, which is free-flowing, is a relatively good place to put a body,” said Danny Agan, a retired Atlanta homicide detective. “You move the crime scene.”

It was this strategy that backfired on Wayne Williams, who was convicted of killing two men and blamed by authorities in the deaths of another 22 in the so-called “missing and murdered” children’s cases.

In May, 1981, a task force was desperate to catch the killer of more than two dozen black children and young men. Four victims in the past six months had been found in the Chattahoochee and another on its banks. So cops started watching the river.

Just before 3 a.m. on May 22, 1981, a rookie cop, stationed under the James Jackson Parkway bridge in northwest Atlanta, heard a splash and radioed his comrades. Williams, who was in a passing car, was stopped. Two days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, was found downstream. The rest is history.

According to DeKalb prosecutors, Hajja Kenyatta Martin similarly tried to use the river to wash away his misdeeds.

On Aug. 1, 2012, fishermen found a body near the northern perimeter. It had been wrapped in a comforter and shower curtain and then duct-taped. The fingertips were burned in an apparent attempt to thwart identification.

But Cobb County authorities put out a public call for help in identifying the body, which had tattoos of Rottweiler, a heart with a dagger, a map of Africa and the names “Latasha” and “Ralph.”

Soon, they had a name: Ralph Taco McGhee, a Decatur resident. They determined that he had been killed three days before his body was found. A couple days later, authorities had a warrant out on Martin, the dead man’s roommate and longtime friend.

The case is on the court calendar and scheduled for trial soon.