Column: Ex-ATF Official Offers Insights and Advice on Hunt for Nursing Student

James Cavanaugh was an ATF agent and supervisor for 33 years before retiring in 2010.

James Cavanaugh/atf photo
By James Cavanaugh

Tennessee is in the midst of a critical search for 20-year-old nursing student Holly Bobo. Holly was abducted from her home in a rural area of Tennessee during the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 13.

Holly’s father and mother had just previously left the house on their way to work and Holly’s brother Clint remained at home. Clint reported looking out the window and seeing Holly walking with a man in full camouflage holding her arm.

Reports are that Clint first thought that it was Holly’s boyfriend but later went outside and found some blood and called 911. Law enforcement officials city, county, state and federal came in mass to Parsons Tenn. to try to track down Holly’s abductor, and return Holly safely to her family.

Citizens from all around Tennessee and beyond have rallied to the search to help find Holly. One report had as many as 1100 volunteers searching the woods on foot horseback,  ATV’s and four-wheel drive vehicles. Clearly the response by law-enforcement and citizens to find Holly has been overwhelming.

I am familiar with his rural section of Tennessee. I started working with ATF in the area in 1976. Additionally,  I have worked on large scale and complicated and difficult cases where no suspects or easy answers were apparent. And I have a few observations and suggestions for law enforcement including the piecing together of a comprehensive time line chronicling the last 60 days of Holly’s life before she vanished.

Holly Bobo

But before I get to that, let me go on with more background on the case. The Tennessee Bureau of investigation has reported in excess of 250 leads and is doing all it can to coordinate and lead the search for Holly’s return home.  Given the nature of the case — no remains have been found and the search was quickly organized —  there exists at at least an even chance that Holly remains alive and is being held by her abductor.

The crime seems to have been carefully planned with the abductor placing a lot of time and effort into locating, surveilling and even stalking Holly.

Likely the abductor surveiled the Bobo house for at least a couple of days. This surveillance would have taken place from the woods where a person in camouflage clothing would easily remain undetected. Once the abductor had the family’s routine down he could then plan this time to intercept Holly as she walked to her car.

Although what I’ve said here is somewhat axiomatic, it remains necessary for investigators to understand the careful thinking and planning of the perpetrator so that they can walk in his footsteps back to where he and Holly may still be.

As leads dwindle in a large case, and it becomes more difficult to see the next logical steps, commanders have to ensure that they are shaping the battlefield to exploit any lead or tidbit of information that may come in the following weeks and months.

Information and witness statements fade with time. No doubt the TBI, the FBI, the assembled Sheriff”s Deputies, Police officers and State Troopers, have done a monumental task of interviewing Holly’s friends, neighbors and relatives in an effort to find out who the abductor could be, and where Holly may be.

With such great support from the community,  commanders would be well advised to leverage that energy toward making a minute by minute and hour by hour timeline of Holly’s life in the 30 to 60 days prior to her abduction.

Commanders could ask all the members of the community at large who have been so helpful already to sit down and write down  every contact they have had with Holly, every place they have been, every location where she was, every event that they have attended with Holly in the last 60 days.

Each place, each event, each meeting, each phone call, each trip to the store may not seem important now but could be the key to placing Holly at a spot where the abductor could have seen her, or come into contact with her and become obsessed with her.

The commanders could set up a place at the Sheriff’s Office or command post and review written notes and re-interview each family member friend or acquaintance, or storekeeper or schoolteacher who remembers being with Holly a certain time and place within the last 30 to 60 days. Investigators should be able to nail down a timeline of Holly’s life concentrating on the last 30 days before she was abducted, and try and take it back  60 days.

This information is invaluable and ephemeral. It will fade with time and needs to be locked down now while Holly is only gone for a week.

Additionally,  it will help tap into the high energy of the community and would utilize the law-enforcement resources currently on scene. It also identifies for investigators places that Holly may have frequented that was not obvious to them before. They may be able to then take steps to get surveillance video from stores and malls and banks that may be available now but not in the months to come.

Some excellent reporting by the new web-based newspaper “The Daily”, and redistributed by “” uncovered a very similar abduction attempt in Centreville, Tenn. just 45 miles from Holly’s home.

“The Daily” reported that Heather Sullivan, a 31-year-old business student whose physical appearance and blond hair is similar to Holly’s, was accosted outside her home at 5:30 a.m. in January.

“The Daily”reported that the attacker knocked a lamp out of Heather’s hand and grabbed her by the arm. Thankfully,  her boyfriend inside yelled out and scared the attacker away. No doubt investigators have known of this attack. Still,  being able to put it together and develop a fruitful lead or wash it out is the task.

As evidenced by Heather carrying a lamp and the time of the morning, it was likely dark. Maybe Heather did not get a good look at the assailant. However, even a glimpse might be able to produce a sketch or at least a release of some physical attributes that could enlighten a person close to the assailant who may then identify them.

Height, weight, voice, smell, hairstyle, clothing means and direction of escape. Did he run? Did he walk? Did Heather hear an ATV or other vehicle startup? Was he wearing camouflage? All these questions and more are no doubt being asked by investigators.

Additionally, commanders could ask that  the same timeline for Holly  be re-created for Heather.

Heather is available, so she and her family and friends could provide much of the information. Armed with all of that data investigators have at least another avenue to pursue. Then you have to ask: Do the lives of Holly and Heather ever intersect?  And where? At the same store, the same gas station? The same restaurant, movie theater or perhaps some other event?

If so, investigators can look hard at places the abductor may have surveilled to pick out his target.

Nothing is a guarantee. The abductor could have picked the victims at random from any location.

However, he has to intersect with them somewhere physically, electronically via the web or through casual knowledge.

It could be that Heather and Holly’s cases are not connected but in large and difficult cases commanders have to set efforts on major leads that may bear fruit.

As “The Daily” reported; both attacks were early morning 5:30 AM and 7:30 AM; both occurred at residences;  both involved the lone assailant who grabbed the victim by the arm; and it looks like both may also have involved some form of initial violence: Heather having her coal oil lamp knocked from her hands and  blood reportedly found near Holly’s house.

The story from “The Daily” did not tell us whether Heather saw a knife or other weapon, but it is possible a knife was brandished and possibly used in Holly’s abduction.

Also in both cases, early morning surveillance was required, and likely done at least once to know when the victim might exit the house.

It has been speculated that the abductor lives close to the area because the facts point to a familiarity with the area. That may very well be true, however, what can’t be ruled out is that the abductor may be familiar with the area because he works there, or he frequents there to visit a friend or relative. Or he’s an avid hunter in this very active deer hunting area. One of the nearby interstate exits is Bucksnort, Tenn.

In Holly’s case she may have been walked, but could have also been transported by ATV to a waiting vehicle.

However, that would have required that the ATV was loaded onto a trailer, open or closed, or into the back of a pickup truck or other truck. She may have been tied or taped and restrained and loaded into the back of such a vehicle.

Certainly investigators are working all of the electronic leads. computers, cell phones, backtracking IP addresses and  checking who may have hit Myspace or Facebook pages and who might have searched online for tag numbers, names or addresses for Holly and even Heather. Investigators go for those leads fast in this digital age, and they may yet yield valuable data.

We don’t have the answers, though obviously investigators know much more than we do. They have to now keep up the investigative energy in the case and shape the major categories of leads to enable them to exploit breaks later.

The answer may come quick, but it won’t come without the continued effort of Law Enforcement and Citizens continuing to work closely together.

The abductor wanted to capture Holly, maybe even Heather before that, and he may still have her. The main thing is to get Holly back, everything else is secondary. Keep the effort strong, keep the focus on Holly.

This case can be solved.

Leave a Reply