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Nov. 30 brought terror and what sadly appears to be a tragic death to a widely regarded Harrison couple, now missing for nearly three weeks.

Most in this Ozarks community of 13,000 remain in grief and disbelief that locksmith John Villines and cherished wife, Amy, were headed home after their weekly date night only to be swept away by a flash flood four blocks from their home.

To comprehend this nightmare on Highland Street that traverses a residential neighborhood, one must understand the nature of the thoroughfare that divides middle-class homes not a half-mile from the historic downtown square.

Highland departs Capps Road to immediately tilt about 80 yards to a low point about five yards wide before climbing steadily up the opposing hill.

A normally bone-dry ditch no more than 8 feet wide crosses Highland at that lowest point where the city built retaining walls to prevent erosion and funnel runoff from yards during heavy rain. Conspicuously missing are signs warning of possible flash flooding.

From there the ditch channel bends rightward beneath a small overpass on private property about two blocks from Highland. This is where the couple's empty vehicle was found lodged with at least one window broken out.

The ditch then meanders to a large concrete tunnel with hinged metal gates before feeding several blocks later into Lake Harrison, formed by a weir across Crooked Creek. The distance overall is about a mile.

As with so many, John and Amy had routinely taken Highland to and from their home. This night around 9 p.m. a downpour from a fast-moving thunderstorm dumped two inches of rain in less than a hour. Some in town say they measured four inches.

That's when things went terribly wrong for the middle-aged couple widely described as caring, involved and deeply devoted to each other. While only they could possibly know what transpired in the confusion of blinding rain and darkness, their maroon-colored SUV wound up caught in the sudden flood that barreled through the ordinarily dry bed to sweep them away.

The boundaries of a debris field scattered in surrounding yards revealed the initial deluge briefly created a swift torrent at least six feet deep and 10 yards across.

Patrick Thompson, who lives on Highland, teared up while telling a television reporter that he'd witnessed headlights from the couple's car as it was quickly taken by the water. "When the car got to ... where that indention in the bank is ... the front of the car started backing down and it backed all the way down into that corner--and after that you couldn't see it because of the height of the water," he said. "My wife and daughter heard him ... somebody yelling. They didn't know what it was, of course."

"There's going to be some mourning and grieving," Thompson continued. "That's what I'm praying for ... is God touches the mourning and grieving and lifts their spirit."

The next morning, Highland remained wet from rainfall but clear. The horror from out of darkness departed almost as quickly as it had arrived.

In the more than two weeks since, the ongoing search for the Villines has been exhaustive. More than 400 community volunteers, with assistance from surrounding authorities, communities and counties, have repeatedly combed the tunnel and explored piles of debris leading into and out of the 8-acre lake nestled 200 yards from the courthouse square.

Divers, dogs and wading volunteers have continuously scoured the lake, which now will be fully drained for dredging after the city council, at the pleading of the Villines family, appropriated up to $400,000 in the recovery effort.

A pair of men's pants, a purse and wallet were discovered below the weir early in the search, suggesting the bodies might have washed over the small dam into Crooked Creek. Last week, unidentified pieces of what appear to be "tissue" reportedly were discovered in the lake and sent to the State Crime Laboratory for possible identification.

Teams of volunteers have searched the creek for some 16 miles downstream, even taking kayaks far down the creek, but found nothing.

At this point, what remains of John and Amy Villines is a town filled with many fond memories of the assistance and enrichment they each brought to Harrison over the years. A city and family seeking closure.

Social media in Harrison has teemed with affectionate recollections of each. Eddie Leonard called John a dear friend with a "heart of gold" who worked to help others seven days a week. "Many days he looked dead tired but he kept on and on. He was always first to volunteer to help," he continued. "He and Amy were very involved with the community. He was a man of God and of humor, always pulling pranks, telling funny jokes and always there if you needed any kind of support.

"John worshipped the ground Amy walked on. They were coming home that terrible evening from being on a date night."

Allison Black, John Villines' sister, told the Harrison City Council that her brother had dropped everything last summer to rescue a young boy locked inside a gun safe. "John in his own right, he was a hero to this community."

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 12/18/2018

Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: A city grieves

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