What Really Happened to the Duck Hunters Who Were Killed on Reelfoot Lake?
After the mysterious deaths of three Tennessee hunters, confusion, rumors, and accusations engulfed the waterfowling world and devastated a community. Now the only survivor of the incident tells his story
In late January, a small-town crime made national news and shook waterfowl hunters to their core. During the final week of Tennessee’s duck season, two hunters were shot and killed on Reelfoot Lake. A third hunter—suspected of killing both young men—was missing for nearly a week before his body was discovered. A fourth hunter survived.
Official details were scarce. Rumors flourished, media accounts contradicted one another, and onlookers were riveted. Internet voyeurs swapped lurid details and unconfirmed stories on social media, and the duck hunting community was genuinely stricken by the news. Locals rallied in an outpouring of support and sympathy. All four men involved in the incident were loved and highly regarded by their friends and families. None of them had a criminal record.
While much of the public was hungry to hear about the violence they assumed was the escalation of an argument over duck hunting spots, those close to the men involved were struggling simply to understand what had happened to their loved ones—let alone why. Even now, three months later and as the official investigation comes to a close, uncertainty remains.
The surviving hunter’s story is central to that investigation. It’s also the only record the families have about what happened to their loved ones. This report includes his account of what happened on Reelfoot Lake and the parts of the case that are still—and might always be—a mystery.
The Survivor’s Story
Obion County lies in the northwest corner of Tennessee, flush with the Kentucky state line and just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It’s where Jeff Crabtree—farmhand, lifelong duck hunter, and the only surviving witness of the Reelfoot shootings—has spent his entire life.
Crabtree lives in a neat red-brick house with a well-maintained duck boat under the carport and a big shop out back. The shop walls are decorated with shoulder mounts and metal camp signs; the tidy workbench could star in a Home Depot commercial. The man is also well-kempt. Only Crabtree’s gray shoulder-length hair is out of place, bunching across his forehead in a loop every time he adjusts his hat. His white beard makes him appear, at first glance, older than his 58 years, but his tall, lean frame is far from elderly. This no-nonsense hunter, perched on a stool in his shop and surrounded by a handful of younger hunting buddies, is the man many online commenters called a murderer.
Crabtree hunts most of Tennessee’s 60-day waterfowl season, so he doesn’t worry about skipping a few days. And since the forecast on January 25 called for thunderstorms, he hadn’t planned to hunt.
“I talked him into going because I knew it was going to be good,” Chase Petty says quietly from across the counter. Now 26, Petty grew up hunting ducks with Crabtree, his dad’s buddy. That’s how Crabtree fell in with a crowd of 20-something duck hunters in the first place: He kept hunting when others in his generation called it quits.
January 25 was a Monday, so most of the eight guys who shared the public-draw blind on Reelfoot Lake had to work, including Petty. But Zack Grooms was in. The 25-year-old’s farm job also allowed him to hunt most of the duck season, and he spent much of it with Crabtree. Sometimes it was just the two of them hunting together during the week. That day, however, Grooms had invited his good buddy Chance Black along. So Black, 26, took the morning off from work at Final Flight Outfitters. He told his manager he’d be in around lunchtime.
The three men departed from the Walnut Log Ditch ramp on the north end of the lake in Grooms’ boat at 5:45 a.m., arriving at their blind on time—about 35 minutes before legal light. (As is customary on Reelfoot, their massive spread of some 700 decoys stayed out all season long.) But thick clouds kept true shooting light at bay for nearly an hour. At one point, lightning flashed so close, the guys hit the deck.
“Are you all right?” Grooms hollered at Crabtree, sheltering on the floor himself.
The men picked themselves up and spent the morning shooting ducks through the sheets of rain sweeping across the lake.
At what he guesses was about 8:30 a.m., Crabtree spotted a boat idling through the stump-strewn waters of the Upper Blue Basin, headed from the northwest shore to the private blind that sits approximately 250 yards away, at their 11 o’clock. But Crabtree never saw any of the spinner decoys turn on at registered blind 164. He didn’t hear any shooting either.
Although there are more than 300 permanent blinds dotting the lake, only 75 of those were available to the public last duck season. In 1914, after a series of violent turf wars, the state acquired Reelfoot Lake. In 1941, part of the lake was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency later grandfathered in all the private blinds built by families who had hunted the lake for years. Grandfathered, that is, until the person to whom it was registered died. The savviest hunters registered blinds in the name of their family’s youngest child. As years and people pass, more and more private blinds are becoming public. Public blinds go into an annual lottery, and those who draw enjoy access to their blind for the whole 60-day season. This means hunters in grandfathered blinds, like No. 164, end up hunting in close proximity to folks who drew a public blind, like No. 58.
The morning wore on for Crabtree, Black, and Grooms in blind 58, and so did the thunderstorm. Black cooked breakfast on their old stove: bacon, eggs, and toast with jelly. Then, an hour or more after that first sighting, Crabtree spotted a jon boat again, idling south along the shoreline. As it approached, Crabtree recognized it as the same one he’d seen arrive at blind 164 earlier.
It looked like there was one person aboard, but Crabtree lost sight of the boat as it rounded the leafy corner of their own blind. He couldn’t hear much either: It was raining, and Crabtree had on a waterproof, dog-eared Cabela’s cap with his hood tugged over it.
Black made his way to the empty end of the blind and popped out of the last shooting hole to speak to the man in the jon boat. Crabtree heard talking but couldn’t tell what was going on. Black came back to his own shooting hole and told Grooms the guy in the boat wanted to hunt with them.
Blind 58 is a low-ceilinged structure built of scrap wood, and it’s brushed-in roof to waterline with leafy branches. There are 10 shooting holes at the front of the blind. Sheets of rubber roofing hang behind the shooting holes to hold heat in the kitchen and the seating area at the back of the blind. A short, wide doorway opens into the attached boathouse. The whole structure is approximately 30 feet wide and 29 feet deep. From a distance, it looks like a small, brushy island floating in the marsh.
On this day, Grooms’ boat was tied up in the boathouse. As he ducked past the rubber curtain and headed out to meet the stranger, Crabtree turned to Black.
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know,” Black replied.
“And what’d he want?”
“He wants to hunt with us,” Black repeated.
In the minutes that followed, the only thing Crabtree heard was Grooms, who said something like, “Can I help you?” Except for those words and the battering wind and rain, all was quiet. It wasn’t until Crabtree heard someone climbing into the blind that he pulled aside the rubber curtain behind his own shooting hole and squinted into the darkness.
Grooms wasn’t in sight. Instead, there was a man obscuring the entrance, his hood pulled up and body bent double beneath the low ceiling. It was hard to tell—Crabtree was sitting 15 feet from the entrance and the back of the blind was as dark as a bedroom with the curtains closed—but it looked like the man had his shotgun rolled upside down and was putting shells into the magazine tube. There was no sound, though, no mechanical chunk of a shell sliding into the chamber or the softer clicks of shells being pushed into the magazine tube. Later, Crabtree would wonder if the stranger was checking to make sure the semiauto was fully loaded.
“I’m almost to the point then to say, ‘Hey, you need to stand up in the shooting hole to load your gun,’” Crabtree says. “You don’t load a gun in the back of the blind and go up through the shooting hole with it.”
But then the man pivoted, slowly, back toward the boathouse, gun held at his hip, with the barrel pointing out the door.
“First thing I thought was, Aw, hell,” Crabtree says. “I was hoping Zack was up in the front of the boat, maybe, because there’s a [supply] shelf out there. I mean, that’s just what I thought. I thought the gun accidentally went off.”
Then he heard something—someone—hit the water.
“Oh my God!” Crabtree hollered. “He shot Zack!”
Black, who was closer, beelined for the door and scrambled into the boat. The man hunched beside the entrance was still holding the shotgun in one hand, the barrel now pointed toward Crabtree’s thigh as Crabtree reached him in just a few steps. Crabtree grabbed the shotgun barrel, jerking the autoloader to the floor and shouting as he shouldered past the stranger.
“Who in the hell are you?!”
“David Vowell,” the man replied, his voice flat.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?!”
“I don’t know,” Vowell replied in that same slack voice.
Grabbing the scruff of Vowell’s neck as he went, Crabtree shoved him to the floor as he hurried into the boathouse.
Grooms had fallen into the water between his own boat and the far wall of brushed-in wire. He was below the surface, unmoving. Black was shouting as the two tried to pull Grooms’ 200-plus-pound frame out of the water. Then Crabtree straightened with a jerk, remembering Vowell.
“I thought, This sonofabitch has to be accountable for what he done,” Crabtree says.
As he climbed back into the blind, Vowell was getting to his feet. Crabtree grabbed the older man with two hands, like a bouncer, one near his collar and the other around his torso.
“And I just shoved him, as hard as I could, out through the door and into our boat. I was still thinking that the gun had accidentally went off. But I just—my thoughts was that I needed to keep an eye on him. My adrenaline was going so much then, and Chance was still screaming and hollering, trying to get [Zack] in the boat.”
Crabtree went over to help and, this time, the two men were able to haul their buddy over the gunnel. There was a wound in Grooms’ chest where his call lanyard should have been. Crabtree was almost certain his friend was dead, but he pushed the thought back and focused.
“My God, we got to get out of here!” Crabtree shouted at Black. “We got to go, now!”
He untied Vowell’s boat, which was blocking the boathouse entrance, and threw the rope in the water. Cell service is virtually nonexistent along the north end of the lake. Besides, Crabtree had left his cell phone behind in the shooting hole, along with his wallet, truck keys, and shotgun.
Crabtree bumped the front of the now untethered vessel as he reversed and then headed for the Walnut Log Ditch boat launch. But Crabtree couldn’t get the 16-foot boat on plane with all the rainwater bogging it down.
Black spread himself across the stepped bow, adding weight to help level the boat. Vowell was huddled on his hands and knees on the starboard side; Grooms was motionless on the port. Crabtree was trying to trim the motor with one hand and shield his face from the rain with the other when he spotted the shotgun in the bottom of the boat. Within arm’s reach of Vowell lay the Remington 870 they used to finish off crippled ducks. He yelled at Black to grab the shotgun.
“I wanted him to get that gun and make sure it was unloaded,” says Crabtree, who thinks he had time to yell twice, maybe three times. “But he don’t—he’s not hearing me. He’s not hearing me. And the old man gets the gun in his hands.”
Maybe Black saw movement, or a yell slipped past his hood and the rain, because he turned as Vowell raised the shotgun. Black shoved the barrel aside, but not fast enough.
“The boy probably didn’t lack but a half a second, and the barrel would have cleared him. Instead, [Vowell] shot him here,” Crabtree says, pointing to the left side of his torso, about the lower half of his rib cage.
“Then [Vowell] turned around for me. And when he did, I did get the barrel, because the first thing is to get it away from you. And the gun never goes off or nothing. I jerked the gun from him, and I just double-handed the barrel”—Crabtree mimes wrapping both hands around the barrel and swinging the buttstock above his own head and down onto Vowell’s like a sledgehammer—“I meant to hit him right in the top of the head. I meant to kill him. I mean, that’s—that’s where I was at with the deal. I’m realizing this sonofabitch is sick. He came to kill us, all three.”
Crabtree thinks the stock landed a little farther back than he intended, maybe the crown of Vowell’s head. Even so, the blow knocked the older hunter back. Crabtree threw the gun to the floor, grabbed Vowell, and rolled the still-conscious man overboard. Vowell landed with a splash in the shallow water at the mouth of Bayou du Chien, the waterway that leads back to the boat ramp. Crabtree looked over his shoulder as he motored into the channel, worried the man might have a pistol. The last time he saw Vowell, the older man seemed to be reaching for a few cypress knees as he tried to stand in the thigh-deep water. Crabtree says there was a patch of bank just a few steps from him.
Normally, it would take the hunters 10 minutes to travel from blind 58 to the Walnut Log Ditch boat ramp, down a stump-free channel that snakes through the cypress trees on the lake’s perimeter.
“Here I am, like this”—Crabtree tilts his hand at 45 degrees to indicate the bow jutting out of the water—“running about five, seven miles an hour, all the while thinking, My God, please let a big boat come down the channel. Let me meet somebody. And Chance was rolling in the boat and screaming…I’m telling him, ‘Please hang on, please hang on, I’m trying to get help.’…And I go all the way to the ramp. Seemed like it takes a day.”
But there weren’t any other hunters at the boat ramp or the parking lot. So Crabtree overshot the take-out by almost a quarter mile, stopping instead at the first house along the channel.
Crabtree landed the boat on the bank, ran across the road in the rain, and hammered on the house’s front door. He told the woman who answered to call 911. And once she got through with that, anyone else she could think of: The sheriff’s department, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency—everybody.
By the time Crabtree got back to the boat, Black wasn’t yelling anymore.
The Crime Scene
Some 15 minutes after the 911 call went through, a pair of Obion County sheriff’s cars pulled into the nearby parking lot around 11 a.m. Then another vehicle arrived, and another, and soon the whole area was swarming with officials. And nobody seemed to have cell service.
Crabtree paced, agitated and unable to stand still as he gave the first of several statements to law enforcement. He remembers seeing the guys still in the boat, rain pouring down, and asked someone to cover them; the woman who called 911 found a piece of plastic.
“I’m all to pieces, just a wreck,” says Crabtree. “My heart was probably racing a thousand miles an hour.”
Authorities drove Crabtree to the sheriff’s department in Union City where he gave his statement two more times. When they returned Crabtree to Reelfoot, he says a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation official asked him for a favor: Was he up for showing agents about where he thought he’d thrown Vowell out of the boat?
By the time they got back to the mouth of the channel, the water had come up about a foot. Vowell was nowhere to be seen. Crabtree knows this stretch of lake well, but the unattended motor had drifted in the windswept current while he disarmed Vowell and pushed him overboard. Crabtree guessed where he’d left the older man, and the TBI agent marked it with a GPS. By now, there were a dozen or so boats bobbing around the two blinds, most of them provided by TWRA agents.
Officials found Vowell’s shotgun on the floor of blind 58 where Crabtree said he’d thrown it. An empty hull was stuck in the action. This is why, Crabtree figures, he wasn’t shot while disarming Vowell the first time.
On the water, Crabtree overheard one official say he could smell propane coming from Vowell’s blind, even from a hundred feet away. Another mentioned someone had turned the kitchen gas on and ripped up paper towels, as if to build a fire. Karl Jackson, the sheriff of Obion County, has since confirmed a propane tank had been left on, and paper towels spread on the griddle had burned in the middle. Subsequent interviews with Vowell’s hunting buddies revealed they often spread paper towels over the griddle after making breakfast to soak up grease. The open propane valve, however, was definitely out of place. According to Jackson, investigators have not determined whether the running propane or the singed paper towels were accidental or deliberate, nor who had left the gas on.
Authorities located Vowell’s boat that same day, roughly 400 to 500 yards from blind 58, in the southeast corner of Blue Basin. The motor was still idling. The vehicle Vowell had been driving was parked at his usual launch, at Gray’s Camp. But Vowell himself was still missing, and it was getting dark. Officials returned Crabtree to the boat ramp, where his son picked him up.
“I’m done,” Crabtree announced as they drove home. “I’m done duck hunting. I can’t deal with this.”
The following day the TBI issued warrants for the arrest of David Vowell on two counts of first-degree murder, identifying Vowell as a 70-year-old suspect who should be considered armed and dangerous. The day after that, rising lake water and murky conditions forced officials to call off their search. The manhunt resumed on Friday, Jan. 28, with authorities searching by foot, boat, and helicopter.
At last, on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 30, Vowell turned up. A duck hunter was looking for loose decoys among the cypress trees of Bayou du Chien when his young nephew spotted a bit of camouflage. David Vowell’s body had washed onto the bank not far from where he’d last been seen alive.
“None of It Makes Sense”
At 62 years old, the resemblance between Richard Vowell and his oldest brother David is still obvious: a squarish chin, a reserved smile, and blue eyes behind their glasses. They shared, he says, the same unwavering faith and mischievous humor. Between the two of them, though, David was the more dedicated hunter.
The Vowell family was baffled when news broke about David’s suspected involvement in the shooting. Why, they wondered, was a friendly 70-year-old man with no criminal record wanted for murder? Richard has a hard time believing a scenario like the one Crabtree describes, because it’s so unlike his brother.
“There’s no rationale behind it,” Richard says, raising his hands in bewilderment. “For anyone—not just us but for the people that were killed—none of it makes sense. None of it makes any sense. And I just, I am just—David and I are very much alike and it’s hard to make him mad. It is extremely difficult to make him mad. If I get mad, I’m pretty mad. But again, I’m just—it’s just not my nature. It’s not David’s nature. And that’s the saddest part about it.”
Richard usually saw his brother about three times a week, and they spoke the morning of the shooting, at about 6:40 a.m. Although he was mostly retired, David had called Richard to see if he needed help caring for their 94-year-old mother, who was in the hospital in Jackson, while Richard juggled work at the family business.
“I said, ‘I don’t need you to do anything. You’re fine. Just go hunting. Have fun.’ And that’s the last time I talked to him.”
Richard didn’t notice anything strange when he talked to David that morning. Neither did Carla Vowell, although she was a little surprised her husband had decided to go hunting after all. David had texted a buddy the day before, saying he wasn’t going to hunt Monday.
“And then he got up that morning and decided he was going to go, which meant he went by himself, because nobody else was hunting,” Carla says, noting that while David had hunted by himself once or twice, he and his buddies generally hunted together in case there was an emergency or boat trouble.
Carla was drinking her coffee when David popped back in to say he had two ducks in the car, and that he would breast them out before he left their house in Martin, which she estimates was around 7:50 a.m.
“Okay,” Carla recalls saying, then, “Are you sure you want to go today?”
“Yeah, yeah,” David had replied calmly, “I just think I want to go.”
An Explanation, for Some
A week after their wedding in 1997, Carla Vowell stepped onto the porch to drink her coffee, only to discover a pile of dead ducks waiting for her.
“‘What am I supposed to do with all those?’” Carla recalls asking her husband, David. “And he’s like, ‘Well, you pluck ’em.’ And I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. There wasn’t anything said in the vows about me plucking ducks.’… And then he started getting that little quirk in the corner of his mouth and I was like, ‘Are you messing with me?’ We’d been married a week…. He was just funny. He loved rodeo. He loved his family. He loved the outdoors—anything to do with the outdoors.”
Vowell’s friends and family say he seemed mostly, though not entirely, himself in the week leading up to the shooting. To his family, it wasn’t enough to explain violence from a man “who would give you the shirt off his back.” To investigators, it seemed like the only explanation.
It started the Wednesday before the shooting, when David Vowell sat down with his wife and told her he had dementia.
“Whoa, wait just a minute,” Carla recalls saying. “Have you been to a doctor that I don’t know about?”
“Nope,” he replied.
“Why do you think you have dementia?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “I Googled it.”
Exasperated, Carla told David that just because he had been forgetful lately didn’t mean he had dementia. By the time they finished their conversation, in which David said he had made a doctor’s appointment, he seemed relieved.
“At that point, he said, ‘I feel like an elephant’s been lifted off my chest.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, don’t be saying you’ve got something if you don’t know that’s what you have.’”
The next day, Vowell visited his friend John Reynolds and asked if they could speak inside because it might take a while. Reynolds’ wife joined them, and the three settled into the den.
“Johnny,” Vowell said, “I’ve got dementia.”
“David, what makes you think you’ve got dementia?”
“Well, I just can’t remember stuff,” Vowell said, going on to explain how he would set things down and couldn’t remember where he’d put them.
Reynolds, 84, and Vowell had spent most mornings of the 2020–21 duck season driving to Reelfoot together and hunting beside each other in blind 164. Reynolds didn’t think Vowell had dementia, but he encouraged his friend to make a doctor’s appointment for a professional opinion.
On the Friday before the shooting, Reynolds and Vowell drove to Reelfoot together, as usual. In the privacy of the car, Reynolds asked Vowell if he’d made a doctor’s appointment yet.
“Yep,” Vowell replied. “Yep, I’ve got one Monday afternoon at 4 o’clock.”
“Okay,” Reynolds said, “let me know what you find out.”
Vowell said he would. The next day he announced that he had dementia again. This time he spoke not just to Reynolds, but to every hunter in blind 164. It was a Saturday, and the blind was crowded with eight or nine weekend regulars.
“He brought up the fact that he was going to quit hunting,” Reynolds says. “Someone asked him why he was going to quit hunting. And he said, ‘I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m forgetting stuff that I should be doing’—this and that. And I said, ‘David, we don’t want you to quit. We want you down here with us.’”
Breakfast was about ready and Reynolds, who normally says grace, added a few words for his friend.
“We prayed for him that, you know, he would get a diagnosis. That God would give him some peace about the situation. And after that, he was just David. I mean, everything was fine.”
Matthew Gingras, 19, took it particularly hard when Vowell made his announcement that Saturday.
“That’s when it really hit, and he told us that he was done duck hunting. And that, that hurt me, because he introduced duck hunting to me.”
Gingras had hunted with David Vowell for nine years and says there was something different about him this season.
“He’s always in the shooting hole, always having fun and enjoying things,” says Gingras, whom Vowell considered a son. “But the beginning of this duck season, I knew something wasn’t really on with him. Something was kind of flipping back and forth. And then he finally told us his problems that he thought he had.”
Vowell was quiet the rest of that morning in the blind, Gingras says, and the next day, too. Vowell hunted again that Sunday before the Monday shooting.
Carla Vowell says she has prayed for all the families involved, and has cooperated with law enforcement, to whom she relayed this series of conversations. Law enforcement has theorized that the shootings were the result of a dementia episode.
“Okay, so he cleaned ducks that morning before he left the house,” Carla says, ticking David’s movements off on her fingers. “And he took the note where I was picking him up at 3:30 to go to the doctor—that was in the vehicle [when police searched it]. He drove to Reelfoot. He gets down there, gets his boat loaded up, [hitches it] to the vehicle, gets to the duck blind—and then all of a sudden, he just has an episode and goes and shoots somebody? That makes absolutely no sense. It just doesn’t make sense. But he did not have a diagnosis of dementia.”
While Carla reiterates that her husband did not have a dementia diagnosis, he had been diagnosed with depression in late 2020 and had recently started taking a prescribed antidepressant. Carla attended that appointment and remembers when his doctor asked if he’d had any suicidal thoughts.
“Once,” Vowell replied, before adding, “I’ve got too much here to live for—that thought just went right on. Which is why I’m here getting help.”
“To me that was a positive,” says Carla. “Yeah, it had flitted through his mind, but he just thought, ‘No.’”
And it was clear to Carla that Vowell had been depressed last year. One friend was diagnosed with cancer, another passed away, and his 94-year-old mother had been dealing with health issues. She was hospitalized a few days before the shootings. Meanwhile, Carla says, coronavirus lockdowns wore on, barring him from the regular exercise of swimming laps at the gym.
The antidepressant seemed to calm Vowell’s agitation, which had persisted for much of 2020. Carla thinks that her husband continued to bring up dementia because he was scared it might be hereditary. Vowell’s mother, now 95, has diagnosed dementia.
David Vowell’s autopsy did not reveal any evidence of dementia, according to district attorney general Tommy Thomas. The official cause and manner of Vowell’s death “could not be determined,” though the physician who performed the autopsy concluded that his death was consistent with hypothermia and/or drowning. The toxicology report revealed no substances in Vowell’s blood. Black’s and Grooms’ autopsies were also consistent with Crabtree’s story. Although Black’s toxicology report showed a small amount of THC (3.4 ng/mL), Crabtree says Black didn’t smoke or consume marijuana while hunting with him. The regional medical examiner’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Zack,” says Chase Petty with a grin, “was a bitcher.”
All the guys gathered in Crabtree’s shop laughed, piling on Grooms like he was sitting beside them.
“He’d bitch if the ducks weren’t working just right,” says Crabtree. “‘Hell,’ I’d tell him, ‘We killed 25 yesterday.’”
Grooms would groan if two decoys were touching, and he was always threatening to adjust the spread. Or he’d tell his buddies to fix it. He worried over the Mojos and whether they should be switched on or off. He would wonder aloud why he wasn’t hunting specklebellies in Missouri instead of suffering through a slow morning in the blind with the guys. He was also a lackluster cook.
“Jeff always wanted two eggs over easy,” Petty says of breakfast in the blind. “And Zack would fry the shit out of them.”
“You could bounce ’em off the floor,” Crabtree says affectionately, noting that Black had cooked his order—two eggs over easy, three pieces of bacon, and two pieces of toast—perfectly that morning. “We had plenty of food, and Zack always served but one egg. Kept it simple…I guess he always just wanted to get back up in his shooting hole.”
By all accounts, Grooms was a deadeye shot and a gifted caller. He worked as a watermelon farm manager, driving across the country during the growing season and returning home for duck season. He had plans to guide waterfowl for the 2020–21 season, but when Petty drew coveted blind No. 58, Grooms canceled his plans and parked himself in northwest Tennessee. It was going to be a good winter, and he didn’t want to miss out.
As a kid, Grooms was full of himself, Tina Grooms says of her younger son, laughing through her grief. He played basketball and football in high school, and he pitched for the baseball team; at Bethel University, he competed on the archery team before graduating with a degree in criminal justice. He wanted to be a police officer, but his main love was duck hunting.
Grooms had attended Greenfield High School with Chance Black, who’d been a grade above him, and the two remained close buddies in the years that passed. While Black wasn’t a big duck hunter—he hunted maybe 10 days each season—he collected guns. Black was one of the managers at the gun counter at Final Flight Outfitters in Union City, where he had worked for years.
This spring, however, he was hoping to enroll in the sheriff’s academy. Black’s father, Mark Black, is the chief deputy sheriff in Weakley County. Mark says that Chance was the kind of kid who mowed his grandmother’s lawn on his day off without ever being asked.
“He never met a stranger,” Mark says. “He would talk to anybody. He treats you like you treated him, and sometimes I would say he’d treat you better. He was always for the underdog. If you were at a function and you were standing off in the corner by yourself and nobody else was talking to you, he would come talk to you … I don’t think he saw any bad in anybody.”
Fighting Over Ducks?
When news broke that Black and Grooms had been shot on Reelfoot Lake, much of the hunting public assumed an argument over public-land ducks had escalated to violence. Certain media outlets even reported this, like this segment from WPSD Local 6, or when Chattanooga-based WTVC-TV News Channel 9 wrote that “the Tennessee hunting community – especially the duck hunting community – is in shock after an apparent dispute between duck hunters on Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake turned violent, resulting in a double murder Monday morning.” The statement Final Flight Outfitters posted in tribute to Black concluded, “No duck is worth the life of a man.”
As it turns out, there was a disagreement on the north end of Reelfoot Lake this past season. But by all accounts, it took place a month before the murders and was resolved at the time. The two groups of hunters involved were reportedly cordial, if not friendly, to each other afterward.
“It was a shooting that could have taken place anywhere,” says Chase Petty. “It could have happened in a Walmart somewhere. It just happened to be in a duck blind. But people were just making up so many rumors because they want—they think, Duck hunting, argument over a duck: That’s gotta be it. And it had nothing to do with that.”
The disagreement that spawned some of the rumors took place in late December 2020 when the hunters in blind 58 say they were working a big wad of mallards. According to Reed Wright, one of the core members of blind 58 who was hunting at the time, they were just a few seconds from calling the shot when a lone duck flew over blind 164, some 80 yards high, and three shots rang out. The flock of ducks the blind 58 hunters were about to shoot flew off.
“[Screwed] us on the whole group we was about to kill 10 or 12 out of,” says Wright. “Petty had just been wanting to go over there and say, ‘Hey, why are [you] shooting so tall?’”
So Wright turned to Petty, and told him, “If you ever want to go over there, now’s the time.”
The two jumped in the boat and arrived just as a pair of hunters were backing out of blind 164’s boathouse. Wright says they did “come in hot,” but reports that their wake almost knocked anyone overboard are exaggerated.
“We was talking shit,” Wright says of their disagreement with two hunters in the blind. “Petty was running his mouth. We all had some words, and we didn’t get nowhere. So I said, ‘Hey, hey, hold up. We ain’t here to bitch and argue. Let’s get something settled.’ That was the day before Christmas, the 24th of December, so we had from there to the end of duck season, so the 31st of January. So we had over a month left to hunt.”
After more arguing broke out from both sides, Wright made his request.
“There’s only one thing we’re asking, and we’ll do the same for y’all. If we’re working a big bunch of [ducks] we’re not going to shoot one duck 80 freaking yards high so you all don’t get to shoot…. We’re not going to do it to y’all, we don’t expect y’all to do that to us. Everybody was like ‘Well, yeah, okay.’”
“It got pretty heated,” Petty says. “But at the end of the conversation, we all apologized. Because they had a 15-year-old boy [I didn’t know about] and I cussed in front of him. They didn’t like that … So we all apologized. I apologized to them. They apologized to us. Everything was fine. It was squashed.”
Wright is friendly with a hunter in blind 164 who later told him there didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. Gingras and Reynolds weren’t hunting in blind 164 that day and only heard about the argument secondhand. Vowell had been in the blind that day, but he wasn’t one of the men Wright and Petty argued with. Vowell did mention the incident to his wife.
“He just didn’t understand why you would do that, particularly with a kid in the boat,” Carla says. “He was irritated about it, obviously. But he wasn’t ranting and raving and cussing about it.”
Gingras doesn’t think that argument fazed Vowell either, who was known among his friends and family for his good temper.
“You really had to piss him off to make him mad. I mean, he was the type of person that would take and take and take. And then, finally, you push him off the cliff. He’s gonna—he’s gonna express his feelings, I guess you would say,” Gingras says, noting that Vowell never said anything more about the argument. “He kind of blew it over his shoulder and let it go. David’s not the type of guy to carry really anything on his shoulders … Yes, we’ve had arguments over ducks, but you know, this—the [shooting] wasn’t over a duck.”
Investigators don’t think the shootings were motivated by the argument between the hunters in blind 164 and 58. Hunters from both blinds say there were no other arguments or disputes for the rest of the season.
“We had [that] one day that we went and had to just get shit off our chest,” says Wright. “But other than that, we didn’t really have a minute’s problem with them.”
There’s a long history of waterfowling in northwest Tennessee, although the lake it’s centered around is, geologically speaking, brand new. The region lies in the Mississippi Flyway—and on the infamous New Madrid Fault. In the winter of 1811–12, just as European settlers were arriving in the area, a series of massive earthquakes ripped across the landscape. Ground east of the Mississippi River sank as earth downstream jutted up, causing the river to flow into the raw lowland. This new 15,000-acre lake was named after the Chickasaw chief who kidnapped his bride from a neighboring tribe. This, legend has it, is what brought the violent earthquakes down upon Reelfoot’s people.
Reelfoot is a flooded forest, shallow and riddled with cypress stumps. As a result, the lake is an outdoorsman’s paradise of jon boats ferrying bass and crappie anglers in the summer and duck hunters in the winter. Typically, it’s only safe for boaters to open the throttle when they’re navigating the dredged channels that connect the tangles of cypress swamps with open water. Duck-stealing bald eagles and salt-white pelicans migrate through, and so do the birders who follow them. It’s a critical stopover and wintering area, and January populations can also hit upwards of 50,000 geese and 150,000 mallards.
Those strong waterfowl numbers and Reelfoot’s public access have created a die-hard community of duck hunters in the region. That community was rocked by the first incident reports, which were noticeably vague. In fact, the TBI initially didn’t report that a shooting had taken place, or that it involved duck hunters. The agency simply announced that Grooms and Black had died and a third man, David Vowell, was wanted for questioning. Tennessee law dictates that the TBI’s investigations, both open and closed, remain confidential and closed to the public. As a result, the TBI declined to comment for this story.
Obion County sheriff’s deputy Landon Kelly was one of the first officials on the lake. He remembers the uncertainty and tension of working the crime scene.
“We knew [Vowell] had a handgun carry permit, so we did not know if we did find him and he was alive if he was going to be armed,” Kelly says. “So it was a very intense couple hours while we were clearing the blinds and securing all that. It’s a very intense operation when you’re looking for a suspect/victim.”
At the time, Vowell was considered both a suspect and a potential victim because investigators weren’t sure what they would find. They had Crabtree’s version of the events without any evidence yet to corroborate it. Blind 58 was declared a crime scene, as was Grooms’ boat, which was trailered back to town for processing.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a full investigation in conjunction with local authorities. Dozens of hunters from both blinds were interviewed. But trying to process a crime scene on a lake, and in a downpour, left little evidence. They found one boot print on the bank in the vicinity of where Crabtree said he ejected Vowell from the boat, Vowell’s glasses in Grooms’ boat, and both shotguns from the shooting—neither of which, Jackson says, had fingerprints on them. Gingras noticed a dent in the front of Vowell’s boat—where Crabtree says he bumped it—that hadn’t been there before the shootings. Investigators have the account of only one witness, whom they find credible. All the available evidence, they say, supports Crabtree’s account.
“Mr. Crabtree has told the same story consistently,” says Jackson. “There’s no way somebody could have made that story up that quick, and consistently told it. If you’re going to tell a story, most of the time you got to have time to think about the story. You got to have time to put it together. His story was consistent. And people want to sit there and Monday morning quarterback it.”
As noted, Vowell had no gunshot wounds and no physical wounds that could have been fatal. The single shotgun wounds sustained by Grooms and Black also align with Crabtree’s story.
“If he intended on causing any harm to Mr. Vowell, other than getting him out of that boat to keep him from killing anybody else, like himself, he would have killed him. But he didn’t,” Jackson says. “He took the shotgun away. He had the gun. Why did he not shoot him?”
There are few degrees of separation in small, rural communities like the network of towns in Obion and neighboring Weakley counties. Sheriff Jackson attended the police academy with Mark Black, deputy sheriff of Weakley County and Chance Black’s father. He also knew the Vowell family, though not as well. When Sheriff Jackson looked into the boat and recognized Chance Black, he hurried back to his patrol car.
“All I could think about was trying to get to these families before news got out over social media,” Jackson says.
But Jackson wasn’t in time to break the news in person. (Multiple sources referenced a leak at the crime scene, and true details—mixed with wild speculation, including rumors of an officer-involved shooting—appeared on social media prior to an official statement from the TBI.)
For backup, and to avoid potential or perceived conflicts of interest, Sheriff Jackson called in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, a statewide law enforcement agency.
“I think we all worked together really good,” Jackson says, referring to the TBI, the TWRA, and other first responders. “And I think we got all the answers we’re probably ever going to get. And I think it’s unfair for people to—if they want to talk bad about Mr. Crabtree, then show me the evidence…. If you got some evidence that he did this, then help us out. Otherwise leave him alone.”
“Mr. Vowell was a good person,” Jackson adds. “So what would have [caused] him to do this? That’s something people can’t give answers to. Who knows what happened to Mr. Vowell, what set him off. All I know is that it’s just a terrible tragedy.”
When district attorney general Tommy Thomas spoke to the media, the story got even more convoluted. By relaying Crabtree’s account to multiple news outlets, he appeared to feed public confusion rather than resolve it.
“Mr. Vowell loaded his shotgun while still in his boat, he ended up shooting the two victims,” Thomas told Thunderbolt News in a radio interview, and to other outlets, two days after the shooting and prior to the recovery of Vowell’s body. “Crabtree knocked Vowell in the head and threw his gun in the water, took off to the shore to take the two injured people, men, to try to get them help.”
Thomas called Crabtree “a hero.” Facebook and Instagram commenters called Crabtree “fishy.” Some insisted Crabtree had killed his buddies and framed Vowell. Or that he shot Vowell. Or that he killed all three hunters in cold blood.
Meanwhile, some commenters were calling Vowell a monster. Others made death threats against his family, prompting the Martin police to patrol their neighborhoods. Richard says the Vowells didn’t know any more than the public did about what had happened on the lake that day. They only learned the story behind the accusations against David when they read social media posts and Thomas’ press interviews.
“No question—I gave out more information than I would in a routine case,” says Thomas, who has been a district attorney for 30 years. “We definitely do not want to try a case in the media. However, in this case I really felt that all the evidence indicated that Vowell would not be found alive. And I wanted to get as much information out there as possible, primarily because of the conspiracy theories. The world is crazy, and there were so many conspiracy theories out there blaming the survivor, who watched his two friends be killed in front of him … If I had thought Vowell might’ve been found alive, I would not have done that … And I’ve never done that before. But there’s nothing usual about this case.”
As the investigation and public uproar played out, Crabtree sat in his shop, staring out the window and trying to make sense of it all.
“People slam me and beat me up, all kinds of stuff, which—that don’t bother me,” Crabtree says, who rejected the possibility that the shootings had been accidental. “I don’t give a damn. I know what happened. I was there. The only thing I know that I might’ve, could’ve done, was—if I would have deliberately known the man shot Zack and killed him to kill him—I could’ve stomped his head through the floor while he was down in that blind. But hell, I didn’t. I didn’t know that at that point.”
Until Vowell shot Black, Crabtree says, he still thought the gun had misfired. Even the request to hunt with them in draw-blind 58 wasn’t that odd.
“That’s not actually out of reason,” Crabtree says, “Like if a guy you [don’t really know, but know of] says, ‘Look, I’m all by myself, how about I just come over and hunt with y’all?’ That’s fine, that’s no biggie.”
With more time to reflect, Crabtree says there were clear signs that Vowell hadn’t intended to hunt with them at all. Normally a hunter wanting to join them should have gotten their permission from his boat and motored to shore to hide it, where Grooms would’ve picked him up in his own boat. Instead, Vowell’s boat had been tied to the boathouse with the motor still idling.
“None of that makes no sense,” Crabtree says. “But, see, I didn’t notice that then. [It’s not] until after something like that happens—you don’t really process all that [at the time].”
Crabtree also can’t understand how Vowell ended up inside the blind while Grooms was still in the boathouse, or how he managed the awkward step up into the blind while holding the shotgun. Maybe Vowell held Grooms at gunpoint, Crabtree wonders, a finger to his lips to keep the younger hunter from alerting his buddies.
Internet commenters also asked why Crabtree hadn’t shot Vowell. He disarmed the 70-year-old man twice.
“The quicker way to me was just double-hand the barrel,” Crabtree says. “If I wanted to, I could have killed him probably in three licks. But I just hit him one time, because I had one thing on my mind. I’ve got two guys—I pretty much a hundred percent know that Zack was dead when we got him out of the water, but I got another guy rolling around the floor of the boat, and all I could think was to find help. I got to get to the bank and try to find help.”
When Crabtree went for help, others have wondered, why didn’t Crabtree go to Gray’s Camp instead of taking the longer route back to the Walnut Log Ditch ramp?
“I was going back to where we come from,” says Crabtree about the route he had taken every day he’d hunted blind 58. “That never entered my mind to go toward Grays’ Camp. We used one way in and one way out.”
A Changed Landscape
The authorities wrapped up the physical investigation of blind 58 quickly, releasing the crime scene on Tuesday, Jan. 26. When they did, some 50 duck hunters arrived at Reelfoot the next day to help clean out the draw blind and pick up decoys.
The Vowell family opted for a private funeral, which came and went before most people in Martin even knew it was happening. Even so, at least 75 people attended. A memorial is being planned for later this year.
The grief of Crabtree, Petty, and the rest of their buddies is mingled with fear for the reputation of Reelfoot—and waterfowlers everywhere. They’re worried the sporting community will condemn Reelfoot as a dangerous place for hunters and anglers, and that the tourism-based community in Obion and Lake counties will collapse. They’re anxious about the kids whose parents won’t let them hunt ducks on Reelfoot or other public waters. They know the non-hunting community might perceive hunters as a bunch of murderous rednecks fighting over dead ducks.
In February, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency proposed reductions to the number of season-long blinds available in the annual draw on Reelfoot Lake. Instead, they will institute short-term claims to certain blinds, so multiple hunters can use the same blind in a season. The TWRA argued this new system would give more public-land hunters opportunities to hunt. Petty says short-term blinds will hamstring public-land hunters. It’s not feasible to haul in hundreds of decoys for just a few days, which means public hunters won’t be able to compete with the huge spreads still set around the grandfathered blinds.
After public opposition, the TWRA walked back some of the proposed changes and finalized the new statewide regulations. Of the 66 public blinds on Reelfoot that are available for the 2021–2022 season, just five will be designated for short-term hunts. Blind 58 is still a season-long top-tier blind.
While these changes were in the works before the deaths on Reelfoot, Petty says most hunters aren’t aware of this. They will assume the murders—surely evidence of an entrenched, antagonistic culture among duck hunters—are the cause.
Crabtree spent the day after the shooting alone, worrying at all the things he could’ve done differently. As evening settled around him, he realized swearing off duck hunting wasn’t the solution.
“I thought, No, I ain’t quitting duck hunting, ’cause I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
Instead, he took his grandson out for the Saturday youth hunt in early February. The first shotgun blasts rattled him, and it took a few volleys before he could settle back into the swing of the muzzles and dropping ducks. But he was also glad he made the effort. It’s what his friend Zack Grooms would have wanted.
Editor’s note: Later this week, we’ll continue our coverage of the Reelfoot Lake shootings with stories about Chance Black and Zack Grooms. You can listen to the Outdoor Life podcast episode about Reelfoot here, on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.