‘We feel like God had his hand on this’: The search for Lucas Vance

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Dec 20, 2019 at 11:35 AM

The day began like most of the 47 that had passed since Lucas “Luc” Vance was last seen at his home late on Oct. 29.

“It’s another Monday Morning and the start of a new week without you Luc. We continue our search and prayers for you daily,” Vance’s family wrote on the “Bring Luc Vance Home” Facebook page. “Things are slow as no one is sharing any information, Please don't give up we will find you ...”

But by mid-afternoon, it was clear that this Monday would be unlike those other days; Monday would be the day Vance’s family members got the closure they desperately wanted, but not in the way they had hoped and prayed for.

What happened that Monday was set in motion almost three weeks before, when Vance’s family enlisted the help of private investigators Chris and Trudy Colbaugh, a series of events that would forever change the lives of Vance’s family.

The search

It took weeks for the Colbaughs to begin their investigation in earnest, needing to wait for evidence they had requested to come in, which it did in the middle of last week. Once they had what they needed, they planned to go out and search on Monday afternoon.

Their ground search began around 1 p.m. on Monday, with the duo having gleaned clues from the evidence they gathered that they hoped might point to where Vance may have gone, or where he might be.

“We felt compelled to go look,” Chris Colbaugh said. “We feel like God had his hand on this and that we were led to do this — it was a very sobering, somber feeling.”

The search was focused on a heavily wooded area off Little Mountain Road in Unicoi, only a few miles from where Vance lived on Marbleton Road. The roughly 1,400-acre area had only been about 40%-to-50% searched, according to a Unicoi County Sheriff’s deputy.

But it was those early, unsuccessful searches that ultimately led to his discovery that day.

According to Colbaugh and authorities, previous searchers had tied colorful ribbons around trees in the areas they had already searched, which helped the Colbaughs decide where to focus their search, ultimately resulting in them bringing closure to a family that had sought it for months.

“There were certain clues and certain things that we looked at during our search that probably helped point us in the right direction,” he said. “Because we were in an area where there weren’t a lot of those colored ribbons, we figured that area hadn’t been searched well yet.”

It wasn’t long before they knew they were on the right track.

“First we discovered a seat cushion, not like a hunter’s seat cushion, it was like a cushion off of a kitchen table chair,” said Colbaugh. “From there, we followed it to the backpack.” 

That backpack is what led them to believe it was Luc Vance’s body they would discover that day, though a positive identification wouldn’t come until later. Inside, they found items they believed were Vance’s, including his identification, according to Colbaugh and Sheriff Mike Hensley.

“We were very optimistic that we were going to find him at that point, but very sad at what we had found,” Colbaugh said. “We knew at that point that Luc was probably there close by.”

After they found the backpack, Colbaugh called Vance’s cousin, Brandy Brinkley, and told her about what they found, saying that he felt they were “on the right track.” Colbaugh also told Brinkley they’d keep her updated on any new developments — but not before the phone calls started coming.

“When I got that first call, I kind of knew then that they probably found (Luc),” Brinkley said. “I called Chris back, but he couldn’t tell me anything over the phone because they didn’t have anything confirmed yet.

“I left work, went home and, with my husband and my cousin, we rode up on the fire road (where the body was found) and we got maybe within 50 yards of where they we are and we just stopped and waited for them because we had passed the sheriff and he had told us then that it was Luc,” Brinkley said, fighting back tears. “We just waited so we could follow him out.”

The final emergency vehicles left the mountain around 7:30 p.m. Monday evening, and the sheriff gave a press conference shortly thereafter. A sheriff’s deputy told the Press Monday night that previous searches had been “maybe 100 yards either way” from finding Vance.

“Knowing how close we were and didn’t find him, it’s just heartbreaking,” Brinkley said. “I truly feel like we’ve tried as hard as we could and I know everybody did, we just weren’t meant to find him until we did.”

A devastating end

Though she’s “thankful” he’s been found — giving the family some sense of closure — it’s not the ending they’d hoped and prayed for.

“We’re just heartbroken,” Brinkley said. “Deep down we just wanted, we were hoping, that he would come home.”

From the moment he went missing until he was found in December, family members never gave up hope he would return safe. At a vigil for Vance in November, Wanda Vance — Luc’s mother — was resolute in her faith that her son would return, telling the Press that night that she “believes God answers prayers and that there’s a lot of people praying right now.”

“Luc, wherever you’re at, please come home if you’re able and if you’re not please just give us some closure,” she said at the time, tears streaming down her face. “Let us know where you are.”

On Wednesday, Hensley confirmed the identity of the body they recovered as that of Luc Vance, with the family following suit on Facebook.

“As you know by now Luc's body has been recovered and it was not the outcome that we had all prayed so hard for,” the family wrote on Facebook. “Luc you are and will always remain a well loved man. You will always be greatly missed and the void that has been left in our hearts will never heal. R.I.P. Lucas Vance.”

The Colbaughs, meanwhile, will not be accepting payment for their services from the family, instead saying that “in this case we felt that we had to help and that’s what we did.”

“We got to know the family and we saw the pain,” Chris Colbaugh said, pausing to collect himself. “We felt that we had to get them an answer and get them some closure.”

Brinkley said they offered to pay them for their work, even creating a PayPal account to help cover expenses, but the Colbaughs wouldn’t have it.

“They just ... truly their hearts were there for our family and for Luc, and we just can’t thank them enough for doing what they did because we may not have found if it wasn’t for them,” Brinkley said.

Questions about Luc’s final moments remain

Little is known about Vance’s final moments, but investigators are confident foul play wasn’t a factor in his death — something they’ve said consistently since early November.

“We have no reason to believe there is foul play,” Sheriff Hensley told the Press on Nov. 8. “Without going into details, I can say we have not found anything that would lead us to believe there was foul play, at this time.”

A few weeks later on Nov. 22, Hensley shared on his personal Facebook page that “a few days” into their investigation they discovered a letter from Vance in his handwriting that “suggest(ed) he was planning on harming himself,” something the family vehemently denied.

“In my heart, I feel like those letters were feelings,” Brinkley said. “I don’t feel like those letters were suicide letters.”

Colbaugh said he would not speculate on a cause of death, and that they found nothing to suggest how Vance died at the scene, but said that they felt Vance was there “probably of his own free will.”

“We will wait until the medical examiner and toxicology reports come before even venturing a guess” about how Vance passed, he said.

But no matter what the results of the autopsy say, Vance will be remembered by his family — and community — as “a good humble person” and “a good boy.”

“Luc was awesome,” Brinkley said as she choked back tears. “He was always the same and when you saw him he had this contagious smile...he would always hug you and he always let you know he loved you.

“He always wanted to make people happy,” she said as her emotions overcame her. 

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