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Appalachian Unsolved: Missing mom is 1 of 3 whose disappearances may be tied to convicted killer

Bonnie Drane vanished in late December 2017. Two other area people who knew each other disappeared about the same time.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Loving mothers and grandmothers don't walk away from their families.

Bonnie Drane's children know that about her. 

It's been four years this December since anyone has heard from the Knoxville woman, and that's a very bad sign.

"She loved everybody she met," her mother Lucille Roberts said. "I always told her that I was afraid that she might meet a wrong person, and she's so openly friendly with everybody. I told her just watch who you talk to and stuff. But she was her own spirit. She done what she wanted."

Credit: WBIR
Bonnie Drane's mother and two of her daughters.

The Knoxville Police Department and Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen say Drane is one of three Knoxvillians who vanished about the same time in late 2017-early 2018.

All knew, in some fashion, one particular person: twice-convicted killer Jeremy Jerome "Big Country" Hardison, 42, of Knoxville. For all three, he may have been the worst kind of person to know. 

Allen's office in September informed the public in a release that Hardison was a "person of interest" in the disappearances of Drane, William Inklebarger and Brenda Carroll. They invited anyone to come forward who may have information.

Hardison is serving a life sentence at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.

Drane's mother, children and grandchildren hope anyone who knows what happened to her -- and what role Hardison may have played -- will speak up. Daughter Carlie Benton said her mother, 47 at the time, may have used counterfeit money in a transaction that ended up costing her her life.

Credit: KPD

In the years since Drane disappeared, her mother and five children have continued to remember her and celebrate her on holidays and her May birthday.

They face another Thanksgiving and Christmas without her.

Daughter Crystal Benton said she wasn't as close to her mother as her other four siblings. But she still cares and she still hurts for Drane, who had battled drug addiction in recent years and picked up shoplifting charges.

"She cared about everybody," she said. "She had her own demons, but who don't? She doesn't deserve just to be out there on her own, no matter what happened," she said.

KPD said its investigation into the disappearances of the three is ongoing.

"While we have received no direct information to indicate foul play, the length and circumstances of the situation would certainly rise to the level of suspicious. KPD continues to investigate any and all leads that are shared or uncovered.

"It is very likely that someone has knowledge regarding this case and that information has yet to be disclosed," the department said in a statement.

QUESTIONS

Knoxville police say they know Drane was alive on Dec. 27, 2017, because she visited a relative being treated for a gunshot wound at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Roberts remembers that day because she walked out of the hospital with her daughter to her car and met Brenda Carroll, the other missing woman who authorities say has ties to Hardison.

Roberts said she asked her daughter about Carroll. Drane said she hadn't known her long but called her a friend.

"She said, She's OK, she's a good person," Roberts recalled.

The last time family members think they heard from Drane was about Dec. 29, 2017. Roberts said she gave her cash at a Weigel's on Rutledge Pike. Drane appeared fine.

Carlie Benton said she spoke to her mother every day. But in late December 2017, she just simply disappeared.

Her children started looking for her; they reported her missing on Jan. 10, 2018.

A couple weeks later, the family found Drane's 1998 Honda abandoned at a North Knoxville apartment complex. The driver's seat was pushed back -- not the position the 5-foot, 7-inch Drane would have had it in.

According to Carlie Benton, the family alerted KPD and was told they could go ahead and take possession of the car. They had it towed to a relative's place, where it sat.

Only months later, according to the family, did anyone from the police department decide it was worth processing the Honda for possible evidence.

Family members said they don't know what the police search of the vehicle yielded. They've been told that's part of the investigation that cannot be released.

'BIG COUNTRY'

Credit: KCSO
Jeremy J. Hardison, a person of interest in the disappearance of three people who also has been convicted in two separate homicide cases.

Drane's children and mother have gone back many times in their minds, trying to identify any signs that she was in trouble before she vanished.

Speaking by phone to WBIR from a Michigan prison, her son, Danny Stephens, said Drane told her before she vanished that she was going to leave the Honda with him and go into drug rehab.

"She felt like the life she was leading was going to lead her to either prison or death," he said. "And I asked her what she meant by that because she was talking like she knew somebody was out to get her."

Drane replied that if anything happened to her that the son shouldn't try to seek revenge. She told him she'd call the next day to finish arrangements about handing off her car.

But he never heard back from her. He sensed she was scared that something was going to happen to her.

After the family reported her missing, Drane's brother got a cellphone call identified as "Bonnie."  When he asked who was calling and noted the number was his sister's number, the person said, "Oh, no, this is our phone" and then hung up, according to the family.

Roberts said she knew of a person in the community with a bad reputation who went by the nickname "Big Country."

She talked with her daughter about Big Country. Drane acknowledged she knew the man but wouldn't give Roberts his real name. Later, Roberts learned it was Hardison.

Credit: TDOC
Jeremy Hardison in prison

She said she cautioned her daughter to stay away from such people because she could get hurt.

Later, after her daughter vanished, Roberts spoke with a KPD detective and confirmed she was familiar with the name Big Country. 

"It was like their ears perked up," she recalled.

Drane had also talked about knowing Inklebarger, the family said. She'd used his phone to make calls. She'd also crashed at Inklebarger's Knoxville motel room previously, family members said.

Carlie Benton said Brenda Carroll had dated Big Country, and that's how Drane met him. Hardison has prior drug convictions, records show.

According to the DA's Office, Inklebarger, 42, was last seen on Dec. 29, 2017, by his father at a motel room at 1500 N. Cherry St.

Carroll, 48, was last heard from New Year's Day 2018, when she messaged her sister on Facebook, according to authorities.

"She was believed to be in the company of both Drane and Inklebarger with whom she had been living," according to Allen's office.

SPECULATION

Carlie Benton fears her mother used counterfeit money to pay for her drug addiction -- and ended up dying because of it.

Family members have handed out fliers as far south as Chattanooga to try to find Drane. They've gone down to the bridges where the homeless hang out, handing out food and pressing for answers about their loved one's whereabouts.

Lucille Roberts trusts and believes in psychics. She said one thinks her daughter is in or was last in water.

Credit: WBIR
Carlie Benton with a photo of her mom, Bonnie Drane.

Their initial anger that someone had done something to Drane has changed now. The family just wants answers, they want information that'll give them comfort about what happened to her, Crystal Benton said.

Knoxville police say anyone with information can give tips through East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers. If you know what may have happened to any of the three or if you have information about Hardison's possible involvement in their disappearances, you may be eligible for a reward.

You can call anonymously through this number: 800-222-TIPS. You can also submit a tip through the East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers' website here.

Any piece of information could lead to closing the case, according to KPD. All information is welcome.

"It's been four years. It's been long enough. It's been nothing but turmoil and nothing but pain," Danny said. "And now all I can do is ask for somebody to ease that pain and that anger for me and my family."

For more Appalachian Unsolved, check out our YouTube playlist or listen to Appalachian Unsolved The Podcast.

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