Update: Body of missing Johnson City woman found in Watauga Lake

Becky Campbell • Oct 4, 2012 at 12:18 PM

Johnson City and Carter County law enforcement located Vonda Berry Marshall Donaldson’s body in Watauga Lake near the Butler Bridge Wednesday, Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes confirmed late Wednesday.

The search for Donaldson, 28, began Sunday in Johnson City after her family reported her missing. The search then moved to Watauga Lake after investigators received information that led them there.

JCPD Capt. Mike Street said late Wednesday afternoon that searchers operating a sonar system had found “something in the water that was suspicious to them.”

The next step was to send two scuba divers down to retrieve the object.

Donaldson was last seen by relatives late Saturday leaving a wedding, and she talked to someone on the phone around 11:30 that night.

Police believe she was with her boyfriend, 31-year-old Steven Odell Bennett, a recent parolee from the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Bennett was released after serving a portion of a total of 22 years on various convictions including theft of a motor vehicle and aggravated kidnapping.

Based on information gathered during the investigation, police believed Donaldson dead and her body dumped off the Butler Bridge into the lake. Rescue squad members and law enforcement personnel search the lake just downstream from the bridge beginning Tuesday morning.

The rescue squad deployed a large pontoon boat and two runabouts to conduct a sonar search of the deep and murky water. Johnson City police officers Lt. Steve Sherfey, Bret Richardson and Joe Hannah were on board the pontoon, watching as the sonar images were displayed.

Conditions for the search were nearly ideal, with mild temperatures and nearly calm water.

Donaldson’s family began looking for her Sunday after encountering several odd situations — her dog was outside and showed up at her mother’s house, her cell phone was turned off, later her ex-husband received strange text messages from her cell phone, and she didn’t show up to pick up her two daughters Sunday evening.

Her family said all of those things were out of character for Donaldson.

Bennett is reported to have called a family member Sunday night and said he’d killed Donaldson after they argued and he was going to dispose of her body.

When police found Bennett early Monday morning, he was in Donaldson’s car at a trailer park. He was arrested on a parole violation unrelated to Donaldson’s disappearance. Bennett is being held in the Washington County Detention Center without bond. He has not been charged in Donaldson’s death.

Donaldson’s body will be transported to the Quillen College of Medicine in Johnson City for an autopsy.

Staff Writer John Thompson contributed to this article.

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