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April 2011 cover image Paddle On!

Buried Evidence

Manslaughter charge filed in 2002 Lake Buchanan boat accident.

By Ben Rehder

On the morning of Dec. 8, state and county law enforcement officers armed with a search warrant and two backhoes began digging on a 10-acre homestead near Bertram, in Central Texas.

Less than three hours later, they found what they’d been seeking for more than eight years — a 16-foot Checkmate speedboat with telltale damage to the bow.

Word traveled quickly that the mystery surrounding one of the state’s most notorious hit-and-run fatalities might have finally been solved. The boat’s owner, Travis Aaron Marburger, was charged with manslaughter. He was indicted by a grand jury Feb. 8 on charges of manslaughter and tampering with evidence.

It was an emotional day for everyone involved, including Texas Game Warden Jim Lindeman, one of the investigators on the case: “I knew it was coming. I knew we were going to get the boat, and I was trying to prepare myself: ‘OK, when we dig it up, it’s just a boat.’ That wasn’t near what happened.”

The heartache began early on the morning of May 4, 2002, when three Lampasas teens — Justin Roberts, Jim Daniels and Kelly Corbin — failed to return from a fishing trip on Lake Buchanan. Just before midnight, Justin had called his parents to report that the fish weren’t biting, so he and his friends were calling it a night. But several hours passed and the teens didn’t show, nor did they answer calls to their cell phones.

David Roberts, Justin’s father, went looking for his son, and he quickly found Jim Daniels’ truck and trailer at the boat launch. Not a good sign. The teens were still on the water. State game wardens and county deputies began to search the lake after sunrise. By 8:30 that morning, fishermen discovered Daniels’ boat, with a dazed Corbin still aboard. Less than an hour later, searchers found Daniels, injured and disoriented, floating in the water. His life jacket had kept him alive through the night.

Then came the tragic news. Justin Roberts’ body had been found. The popular football team captain and student council member had died three weeks shy of his high school graduation.

Even then, searchers didn’t know if their work was done. Where was the other boat? Several more hours passed before officials concluded that they were dealing with a hit-and-run.

In the ensuing years, investigators followed up on thousands of leads and tips. None panned out. Lindeman and Gordon Eckert participated in training courses that teach advanced boat accident investigation techniques. But the case went nowhere.

Then, in November, yet another tip came in. The caller had heard something at a party. Lindeman says: “They were all visiting, and the subject came up about the boat accident. Somebody made mention, ‘Remember, Travis had a boat like that.’”

State records backed that up. So Lindeman and fellow Game Warden Joe Carter interviewed Marburger, and the truth eventually came out.

David and Donna Roberts have been able to find some comfort in knowing that the boat has been found and a suspect has been arrested. “It’s just like a rush of excitement,” says David Roberts. “That’s what you’ve been waiting to hear for a while. It wears on you. Waiting. Not knowing.”

For Jim Daniels, it was the answer he’d been hoping for. “I spent almost a third of my life praying for it. Not lost hope. I really hadn’t. It took a little bit of time to all settle in.”

Fittingly, Daniels is now a state game warden, a career choice he and Roberts had both considered from an early age. “Justin and I both talked about it. After this accident, getting to know more game wardens on a more personal level, it really brought it home that this is what I want to do.”

Lindeman, who is considering retirement in a few years, is gratified that he and his fellow investigators were able to bring the case to a resolution.

He says: “Every May 4, I call Dave and Donna and Jim. ‘I’m thinking about you. Still working on it.’ The same old story, eight times. Well, I guess this coming May 4, I’m going to call and say I’m thinking about you, but I don’t have to say I’m still working on it. That’s pretty cool.”


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