Starling recovery gives closure after long search

Published 10:27 pm Monday, October 7, 2019

The search for Troy woman Kelsey Starling came to a close Saturday night after divers recovered her body at Smith Lake more than three months after she went missing during a boating collision.

The wreck happened late on July 4, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency searched daily for 15 days before suspending daily searches. Family, friends and an entire community then pitched in to fund continued searches of the lake alongside law enforcement personnel so that Starling could be recovered and that the family could find closure.

Nell Parks Haley has been by the family’s side during the search and described the moment that divers found Starling on Saturday.

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“We were all patiently watching one boat lowering the drop camera in the water and another boat operating the ROV from it,” Haley said. “The drop camera boat came to the dock and then we heard a yell. We watched the boat pull away from the dock and rush to the other boat still out on the water. We could see them all looking at the ROV screen. Suddenly, we were all on our feet with our hearts racing. Could this finally be it?”

Then the Marine Patrol police pulled alongside the boats and Haley said they could see the divers and ALEA officers embracing and shaking hands.

“We all raced as fast as we could to get to the dock.,” Haley said. “We heard the words we have all waited for, ‘Mr. Starling, we have located Kelsey.’ Immediately everyone – family, friends, (Houston County Recue Unit) members, ALEA shed tears of relief and pure joy and it was a hug frenzy from person to person.”

Starling was found in 140-foot deep water in an area of Smith Lake near Rock Creek, where Starling went missing following the collision.

Starling, a speech language pathologist at Tuggle Elementary School, was a passenger in a 2012 Mastercraft wakeboard boat driven by William Jackson Fite, 23, of Decatur. Four other passengers on the vessel were taken for medical treatment.

One person was injured on the second vessel, a 2011 Harris Flotebote pontoon boat reportedly operated by Jodi Wallace Suggs, 50, of Decatur. She and her husband, Nick Suggs, also 50, were indicted by a Winston County grand jury. They are charged with criminally negligent homicide and have pleaded not guilty.

The Troy community rallied around the family, raising $69,532 through gofundme to help support continued searches for Starling. Many individuals, businesses and other organizations have also shown their support and solidarity with the family by placing blue ribbons on their doors and mailboxes.

The search lasted three months as divers fought depths of nearly 200 feet and an underwater forest with trees as tall as 60 feet. Not only did the trees make diving dangerous for even the most experienced professionals, it also hampered efforts through remotely operated vehicles, as any contact with a tree would send brush throughout the water and cloud the cameras.

Houston County Rescue Squad, Crane Hill Fire Department, Logan Fire Department, Trimble Fire Dept., Smith Lake Task Force, Winston County Sheriff’s Office, Winston County Coroner’s Office, Winston County EMA, Cullman County Coroner’s Office and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol Division were involved in recovery efforts.

Haley gave special thanks to Houston County Rescue, the team that was finally able to find and recover Starling.­

“We are forever grateful to Houston County Rescue Unit,” Haley said. “They never gave up. They have a blue ribbon tied on their boats, they wear Kelsey’s blue armbands, and in a final tribute to Kelsey, a blue ribbon was tied around the bottom of the tree beside where she was found.”