Dozens of volunteers turn out to search for remains of missing south Georgia father
Brandon Helms, of Thomasville, vanished from a Lanier County home in 2015.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Dozens of volunteers showed up at the Lanier County Courthouse on Saturday morning to help search for the remains of Brandon Helms, who was 42 when he vanished from a nearby home in Lakeland.
The search party met in the quaint downtown at 9 a.m. and then caravaned to the search party headquarters on private property next to the Teeterville Highway house Helms had been staying at in 2015.
“I’m just hoping we can find closure for the family and at least get some answers,” Lakeland resident Darren Vaughn told WCTV reporter Katie Kaplan.
Interest in the case was reinvigorated after it was featured in Kaplan’s ‘Unsolved Series’ on WCTV in July.
Vaughn said he remembered the case from when it first started just before Christmas nearly seven years ago. He showed up on Saturday with a few friends and a metal detector.
He was not the only stranger to turn out.
Another man and woman identified themselves as the family of Tara Grinstead, the south Georgia beauty queen who vanished from Ocilla in October of 2005. The pair told fellow searchers they felt compelled to help because they “understood what it was like.” Grinstead’s case was cold until a major break in 2017. Two men were charged and convicted in connection with concealing her death. Her remains have never been found.
A Valdosta prison rehabilitation group rounded up five people who wanted to help.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack out here, but God can do anything. I truly believe that,” said Darren Howell, of Azalea Prison Ministries.
“You can’t turn every stone, but we’re going to try,” said Jeffrey Key, who was from the same group.
Key spent more than an hour with a shovel at one point digging away in an area where a blanket, duct tape, and a shell casing were found. The items were found in an area that could have once been a trash dump site, but will still be sent out for forensic testing.
Brandon’s mother Gail, father Roger, sister Kelley, brother Todd, and sister-in-law Shelley also came out to help, in addition to other family members and friends.
“It brought everybody to tears. It really did,” said Brandon’s Cousin, Vivian Knipfer. “It means a lot to us. It really, really, really does.”
Knipfer has created a Facebook page dedicated to the case and organized the search alongside the former lead investigator on the case, Billy Jo Slaughter. Slaughter once worked for the Lanier County Sheriff’s Office but is now with Cook County. She is helping with the case on her days off.
The Lanier County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating Brandon’s disappearance, did not help to facilitate the search and did not have a representative on hand for it. The agency has conducted several searches of the area in the past, but not an official ‘grid search.’
Absent from the search was Brandon’s best friend and roommate, Monty Kilcrease. According to the LCSO, Kilcrease was the last known person to see Brandon and owns the home Brandon had been staying at while he was separated from his wife, Misty Helms. Noticeably on Saturday, Kilcrease had his large Dodge truck parked in the middle of his driveway stating on his public Facebook page that it was to stop trespassers from accessing his property.
Slaughter stated several items of interest were taken from the home following a search roughly three years after Brandon’s disappearance. Kilcrease has publicly maintained his innocence and has not responded to WCTV for several interview requests.
Misty Helms also did not attend the search and has not responded to WCTV’s request for comment in the past. However, in court records Misty testified that Brandon was depressed and had threatened suicide in the hours before he vanished.
Most of the search on Saturday was through thick forest brush on farmland that surrounds the house Brandon was last seen at. Dozens of bones were collected. However, a medical examiner determined they were all animal bones.
The Helms family said they plan to search a different part of the grid in about six months.
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