This is the second of a two-part series about the mysterious disappearance of Ben McDaniel, a certified open water SCUBA diver that has been missing since August 18, 2010. The missing persons case remains open.
On August 20, 2010, a call went out to cave divers in the region surrounding Vortex Spring, Florida that a diver was missing, and in all likelihood, a body needed to be recovered from the cave within the spring. Three teams of 16 divers accepted the call and searched for the body of Ben McDaniel for 36 consecutive days, finding not so much as one indication that he had indeed drowned in the cave or the surrounding spring. Every crevice and opening of the cave was fastidiously searched, with the exception of a constricted, dangerous area in the rear of the cave that even highly experienced expert divers had encountered difficulty entering. The owner of Cave Adventures, a dive shop located about an hour from Vortex Spring, made his way into the area in 3 attempts, and found no evidence that any divers had been in there. With the effort it took to gain entry, he speculated that a diver of McDaniel’s stature, over 6 feet tall and 210 pounds, would not have been able to secure access.
Although no evidence was found in the cave that would suggest what had happened to McDaniel, there were some odd clues. Full air tanks were discovered outside the entrance of the cave, which was perplexing to investigators for two reasons. The first was that the tanks were filled with regular air, which is inconsistent with what McDaniel would have presumably learned by reading up on cave diving, as his parents insisted he did, because cave diving often requires a special gas mix, depending on certain factors, such as depth. Secondly, cave divers place extra air tanks along their way inside the cave, so that it is within ready reach if the diver should need it in the cave. In addition to these strange discoveries, McDaniel’s truck went unnoticed by staff of the dive shop at Vortex Spring for two days, despite being parked well within their view. Inside the truck was McDaniel’s wallet with almost $700 in cash, a cell phone, and various other personal effects. The last call placed on the cell phone was to his mother the previous evening.
Ben McDaniel’s parents, Shelby and Patty, attended the searches vigilantly, hoping against hope that one of the divers would surface with answers about their son. They offered a reward of $10,000 to any diver who would brave the incredibly dangerous passage where other experienced cave divers refused to search out of fear for their own lives. Because that area remains unturned, the frustrated and grief-stricken parents have become convinced that is where Ben’s body may be. Their unwillingness to accept that this theory may be incorrect was what led Jill Heinerth to produce a documentary about the mystery.
Heinerth and her husband, Robert McClellan, have produced four documentaries, one of which was “Water’s Journey,” aired on PBS. Heinerth’s initial motive for visiting Vortex Spring was to take footage of a cave dive to present to McDaniel’s parents in an effort to demonstrate the inherent dangers of cave diving and help them to get closure. But after reading McDaniel’s log books, Heinerth discovered that he was mapping the cave, and had made at least one dive to its furthest reaches. She then changed her mind about the approach, concluding that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that he wasn’t in that part of the cave, leading to her decision to make the documentary focused on his disappearance, and to call it “Ben’s Vortex.”
Theories as to what really happened to Ben McDaniel abound. Some believe that perhaps McDaniel set the scene for his own disappearance in an attempt to start a new life with no one any the wiser. Others think he drowned at some point in the cave and was swept out to sea. Yet another theory suggests foul play may have been involved, with a former owner of Vortex as a suspect. At the time of Ben’s disappearance, the owner was awaiting trial for the alleged kidnapping and beating of a temporary employee, for which he pleaded no contest and received a fine and probation. The man is since deceased, with suspicious circumstances surrounding his death a month ago.
The McDaniels continue to hold onto hope that their questions will someday be answered. Until then, the missing persons case remains open. The couple has since increased the offered reward to $30,000 for the diver who is able to locate their son in the last reaches of the cave.