Drummer Joe Cripps was last seen leaving the White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Drummer Joe Cripps was last seen leaving the White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Ed Steele

A Former Bandmate Hunts for Clues in a Heartbreaking Search for Brave Combo’s Joe Cripps

Bubba Hernandez stood before the congregation of a black gospel church in Little Rock, Arkansas, to thank them for their support of his former Brave Combo bandmate, Joe Cripps. It was Hernandez's second trip to Little Rock to search for Cripps, a celebrated North Texas drummer who went missing in October.

Cripps moved from Denton to his hometown of Little Rock in late May 2016. Before he vanished, Cripps had invited Hernandez to visit the church, but Hernandez had been too busy to make the trip. In late November, a month after Cripps went missing, Hernandez was taking him up on the offer.

“I know he could be difficult, yet you loved him unconditionally," Hernandez recalled telling the congregation in an interview with the Observer.  "I’m grateful for your services and for allowing him to be here.”

Nearly three months have passed since Cripps disappeared. He was last seen in mid-October, leaving White Water Tavern, a dive bar in Little Rock. Little Rock Police Det. Jake Pasman says he’s exhausted all the recent leads and has sought the public’s help. “We’re still going to keep looking for him,” he says. “We know he was a beloved member of bands in this area.”

Hernandez played bass with the Grammy winning polka band Brave Combo, which formed in '79, from '85 through '07. He met Cripps in the early '80s in Denton. Cripps would attend the Brave Combo shows and sometimes sit in on a few songs, playing in a simplistic style that kept the groove going.

When drummer Mitch Marine left the band in the early '90s, Cripps became the drummer and a partner in the Brave Combo business. He played throughout the '90s and left the band in 1999.

Hernandez  hadn't spent much time with Cripps since he left the band in the late '90s.  But after learning of Cripps’ disappearance, Hernandez had trouble sleeping and decided to take action. “I don’t even know why I went [to Little Rock],” he says. “I couldn’t stay at home.”

Hernandez decided to walk the same path as his former drummer and “use his nose” to turn up a clue or locate him. He’d been told that Cripps was quite drunk when the bartender stopped serving him and that he'd called a taxi and walked out of the bar. Cripps had been known to wrestle with alcohol and had even gone to a rehab, but Hernandez says, “It didn’t take.”

During his search, Hernandez learned that Cripps had been working at a halfway house and doing odd jobs to earn a living. On the day he was last seen, he’d gotten paid from a job that he previously quit and had a couple thousand dollars on him.

Cripps also lived in a rough neighborhood — at one point Hernandez asked a friend to remain on the phone with him because he had walked past “a couple of bad-looking dudes" and was worried.

Hernandez looked along the railroad tracks behind the White Water Tavern, though someone told him he shouldn't be hanging around the tracks because "the homeless people will mug you and beat the shit out of you.” 

The search has some scary, dramatic moments.  On Tuesday he heard that a body had been found on the bank of the Arkansas River. But it wasn't Cripps. The state medical examiner’s office identified the body as 47-year-old Ronnie Tolbert of Little Rock.

During his trip to Little Rock, Hernandez also visited with Cripps’ brother, James, and their mother, who he says treated him as if he were part of the family.

James Cripps couldn’t be reached for comment. He told a local news outlets that he filed a missing person’s report because he found his brother’s medication and a bag with his drumsticks and mallets, both items his brother believed Cripps would never leave behind if he were leaving town.

Brave Combo founder Carl Finch says the family didn’t realize Cripps was missing until three or four days later, so he could have made it home that night and gone missing after that.

Cripps was also scheduled to perform on Oct. 21 but never showed up to play the gig, another thing his brother told Arkansas Online was out of character. Cripps' vehicle was also being repaired at a local mechanic shop.

Hernandez offered to start a GoFundMe account to raise money for the family so they could hire a private investigator, but the family declined and said they were going to let the police handle Cripps' disappearance.

“Nobody deserves to go out that way,” Hernandez says. “Nobody should get lost like that… I just want him to be at peace. That’s what I pray about it. I know that everybody wants him to be alive and all that, but I want him to be at peace.”

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