It was the last time his family saw him alive.
Thirteen years and three months later, an investigation into Banner’s death is still open, but little is known about his final moments or days.
“Good to a fault,” Banner was a “genuine” person who never met a stranger, something that always worried his mother. Looking back, Sharon Shade says it’s “how Gordon got hurt in a lot of areas of his life.”
Growing up, Banner was like most boys: A lot for a mother to handle on her own. Still, Shade never let that stop her from raising him as best as she could. Shade said she had to discipline her son somewhat often, but she doesn’t regret anything she did raising him. By all accounts, she raised a son who was well-liked and loved by almost everyone he encountered.
“Gordon was a piece of work,” his mother said, “but he knew everybody, and everybody loved him. That’s why it just bothers my heart that somebody would purposely hurt him.”
And though Banner was well-liked by almost everyone he met, he struggled with an addiction to alcohol. During the last few years of his life, Banner racked up several alcohol-related arrests and struggled to deal with the loss of his two biggest influences, his father and grandmother, within two years of each other, often turning to alcohol to cope.
“His daddy’s death killed him, but when my momma died it just destroyed Gordon,” Shade said. “He was never the same, Gordon couldn’t live without nana. Mama’s death is what really killed Gordon.”
Banner’s last days
In the days leading up to Oct. 7, Banner was in the midst of an alcoholic binge.
According to a missing persons report, Shade told the responding officer that she had picked her son up from the Washington County Detention Center around 5 a.m. on Oct. 7 after he was arrested for public intoxication. When Banner left around 9 p.m. that night, she suspected he had been drinking again.
“He wasn’t acting right,” she said.
When Shade questioned Banner about his plans that night, he was short and didn’t answer her questions, only saying that he was going “out.” As he slid down the railing of their Ninth Avenue home, Shade knew her son had a buzz and told him to be careful.
The last words they said to each other were, “I love you.”
Banner would take his last breath between one and two days later, but Shade didn’t report him missing immediately. According to Shade, Banner wasn’t happy he and his mother had to move back in with Banner’s grandfather and aunt after his grandmother’s death, and he often left home for days at a time. Banner’s cousin, Josh Shade, said Banner would often stay at his house, but grew concerned when he hadn’t heard from him in a few days. Still, because of Banner’s transient lifestyle, neither alerted authorities.
It wasn’t until Shade heard about a male body found in Fort Patrick Henry Lake that she began to worry. Her first thought was that it was her son rescuers had recovered, but told her sister at the time she was going to wait until she got off work to report her son missing. If he wasn’t there when she got home, she was going to the police.
At 5:57 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13 — six days after Banner’s family had last seen or heard from him — a missing persons report was filed. By that time, Banner’s body was already at the medical examiner’s office, as authorities in Kingsport worked to identify the body of a man they had pulled from the lake 27 hours earlier.
A few hours later, police officers from Kingsport and Washington County were preparing to head to Shade’s home to deliver the news no parent wants to hear. She mistakenly thought police were preparing “a drug bust.”
“So I thought,” she said.
An intense investigation
At about 2:45 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2006, Kingsport Police were alerted to the discovery of a body in the Fort Patrick Henry Lake, but by the time KPD Detective Jason Bellamy arrived on scene, investigators from the Tennessee Valley Authority had already taken over the investigation, as the body was found on TVA property.
For the next month, investigators would “chase leads everywhere” as they looked for a suspect and a motive in Banner’s death, which the TVA considered “highly suspicious” at the time.
They wouldn’t find either.
Bellamy, now a commander at with the KPD, said the initial phases of the investigation were intense. Officers interviewed dozens — if not hundreds — of people across three counties trying to come up with answers as to how a seemingly happy, popular and well-liked young man ended up dead in a lake 15 miles away from his home.
At the request of the TVA, the Tennessee Bureau Investigation joined the probe into Banner’s death on Oct. 17, but leads were still few and far between. Bellamy said it was “hard to determine a who or a why,” and the investigation started to grow cold, with even a timeline of events after Banner left home Saturday difficult to establish.
What happened the night he disappeared?
Police know that Banner left home around 9 p.m. Saturday, and, at some point during the night, went to a nightclub and made a stop at a grocery store where he used to work. Bellamy couldn’t recall where the last sighting of Banner was, but it’s likely he was last seen at the nightclub and visited the grocery store sometime prior.
Establishing an accurate timeline of events, however, was just one more piece of an increasingly difficult-to-solve puzzle. At the time, investigators said they were mostly looking to find out how he made it to Kingsport, and, subsequently, into the water. At the beginning of the investigation, the TVA’s lead investigator called it “our biggest question,” adding that Banner “had no ties to Kingsport.” Banner’s family and friends also said the same, but Bellamy said that during their investigation they found it wasn’t abnormal for him to be in Kingsport.
Thirteen-and-a-half years later, how Banner ended up in Kingsport is still the primary question, as he did not have a car and walked everywhere, according to his family.
Authorities were never able to establish where Banner died either, though it is likely he died in Kingsport. According to his family, Banner’s cause of death was drowning and blunt force trauma to the head, suggesting he was alive — and likely unconscious — when he entered the water from atop Fort Patrick Henry Dam. Shade said she believes her son may have gotten into a fight or knocked unconscious, and his attackers panicked, something Bellamy said they looked into during their investigation.
“I feel like, in my soul, that they thought my baby was dead and they freaked, but my baby was not dead — he was unconscious,” Shade said. “They meant for my baby to die.”
Where the investigation stands today
Since Banner was found dead, no suspects or persons of interest have been named, but, according to Banner’s missing persons report, Johnson City Police had reason to believe Banner left home “with a suspect,” though Shade doesn’t remember Banner leaving with anyone. The report also lists a dark green Ford Mustang as a potential vehicle Banner may have been in, but it’s unknown what became of that lead.
After the TVA’s police force was eliminated in 2012, the case went to the TBI, where it remains today. The TBI declined multiple requests for comment on Banner’s case, citing a Tennessee law which bars them from discussing active cases. The TBI considers the investigation “active and ongoing,” but would not say why, after 13 years, it’s not considered a cold case.
“This remains an open case and we have and will investigate every lead,” said TBI Public Information Officer Keli McAlister. “We also ask that anyone with information about this case contact us at 1-800-TBI-FIND or [email protected]”
Bellamy said he hopes to see the case resolved before he “checks out,” calling it disheartening to have it remain open more than a decade later, and that he can’t fathom what Banner’s family is going through.
“We spent countless hours investigating, so to not solve it is disheartening,” Bellamy said. “You don’t forget the ones you do solve, but you never forget the ones that aren’t.
“It haunts you.”