S.H.I.T. happens in the Twilight Zone

Written by Lamar English

Congratulations, by passing the written test, and having demonstrated an acceptable degree of proficiency in the pool and completing the mandatory number of training dives…You now have earned the title “certified diver”. You’re ready to take on the underwater world. You have also, however, been handed off to your new teacher, “experience”, who will teach you things that were not covered in class. You don’t yet realize it, but your certification is the underwater equivalent of a restricted driver’s license, a learner’s permit. You don’t know shit, haven’t seen shit, and haven’t done shit.

Before I go further, let me define shit. Shit is an acronym; it stands for Sudden High Intensity Training. It has been said that experience is the best teacher. I agree. I would also like to point out that shit is the favorite teaching method of experience. There are many types and degrees of shit, here are a few.
Stupid shit: You actually knew better than to try this when you started, but thought you could get away with it…Experience will re-enforce what you already knew.
Oh Shit: Surprise! I can’t ______! (The most common form of training…)
Deep Shit: Serious training. Time pressure is on the forefront. Delays in getting your shit together will make you a statistic…
Holy Shit: The Proverbial BIG One, (Properly pronounced slowly, with three syllables, in a low tone; Hoole leeee shit!). Religious connotations involved, often accompanied by sincere pleas to God…
For most people, Holy Shit is the ultimate level of Sudden High Intensity Training. For a few of us, though, there is still yet another level, one so strange, so unprecedented and totally bizarre that it defies definition. I can only tell you the story, which for me, was like being trapped in my very own personal, inescapable, episode of “The Twilight Zone” – in a world of SHIT!

Back in 1977 the majority of my bottom time for the three previous years was spent black water diving for artifacts in the Aucilla River. My buddy, G.W. Pridgeon, and I had spent hundreds of hours fanning away the silt and sediment from the river bottom hoping to uncover arrowheads, mastodon bones and sharks teeth to add to our collections. We had recent success in a portion of the upper Aucilla and planned to make two dives that day (August 7, 1977), one in the river and one in a nearby sinkhole. We decided to dive the sink first. (We never made it to the river). We entered the water at 2:15 pm, slowly descending; we stopped at 30 ft to tie off our guide line to a log protruding from the wall of the sink. Continuing the descent, I noticed something at 40 ft. that seemed unusual. There on a ledge beside me I saw a white object, a cement block, and then another one right beside the first. I then noticed a couple of vertebra inside an oval form next to the blocks. It was hard to determine just exactly what this was, in the 2 ft. visibility, so I blew a little air into my BC and slowly swam above this thing and took a closer look. I saw another cement block just above the other two and to the left of this block I saw something totally unexpected – a human head with a rag stuffed into its mouth and a hole the size of a quarter just over its right eye. I had been looking into the upper torso of somebody that had been bound, gagged, shot in the head, wired to cement blocks and thrown into the sinkhole.

With that realization, I gave the “Worldwide standardized, hand/light/voice signals” to convey this information to G.W….He understood. (What? Didn’t you see this one in Hand Signals for Diving???) Trust me; if you ever need this one, you’ll instinctively do it…As G.W.’s eyes widened, I thumbed the dive. He seconded that motion instantaneously. Time to go… We surfaced, and very briefly held a post dive analysis. (Hey it was a brief dive). We decided to quickly run our guide line from the surface to the body, so that the “Sheriff’s Dept. Dive Team” could easily locate the body. After having done so, we left that part of the world in a big hurry, driving some thirty miles to Perry, FL, to get the Sheriff; it was 2:30 pm.

Arriving at the county jail, I solemnly announced, “We need to see the Sheriff”.
“Sheriff ain’t here, he’s outta town, now what can I do for you?” replied the jailer.
“Well then…we need to report a murder”. This caught the jailer off-guard, and he then left us there and came back with a deputy and an investigator. We were escorted into a back room and told them our story. They left and came back a short time later. Neither of us was prepared for the next round of dialog.

“You all got plenty of air left?”
“Yup, weren’t down very long at all.”
“You boys call your mammas, and let them know you’re going to be home late. Were going to go back there and bring up whatever it is you think you found,” pushing the phone in our direction.
(Have I mentioned the G.W. was 18 and that I was only 16?)
I thought to myself, “Fuuuuck THAT!!!”
I was somewhat relieved when G.W. offered, “You should call the Leon County Sheriff’s Dept., they have a dive team for stuff such as this. Sgt. Al McDermitt is the leader.”
“Naw, we can handle this ourselves, right here. Now you boys call your mammas…”
I looked at G.W. just as he was turning to look at me. We both just kind of shrugged – what are you going to do? We both had resigned ourselves to the fact that our next dive was not going to be pleasant. You just deal with it… We made the calls…

We left the jail in a convoy, G.W. and I first, followed by the marked deputy car, then the investigator in his un-marked cruiser, and then bringing up the rear was a black & white Perry City Police cruiser. We arrived back at the sink and I think it was the investigator who remembered somebody that had a closed circuit underwater TV camera for inspecting wells. This person was called and we waited for him. He finally arrived with his van that had a crane on top of it to deploy the camera. We geared up and got into the water. They lowered this monstrosity of a camera down to us. It was big, about three feet long, some five to six inches in diameter, housing of stainless steel and HEAVY. It was probably 100lbs. negative. We fully inflated our BC’s, grabbed a hold, and immediately took the express route down. Luck was with us as we did manage to crash into the ledge where the upper half of the body lay. We filmed it as best we could, then made our way back to the surface. The authorities agreed that this was indeed somebody! We were somewhat indignant, as we had been telling them this for a while.

Recovery operations begin, the camera was hoisted out of the water, and I was handed a pair of wire cutters. We again returned to the body, snipping the bailing wire that held the cement blocks securely to the victim. One around the neck, two about the waist, and two about the ankles, (The lower half of the body was a few feet below the upper torso, having been separated at the waist.)
They hauled up the cement blocks using our guide line. Next it was time to retrieve the body. Guess what – none of the guys had brought a body bag….
“What are we going to put him in?” I asked?
The deputy responded, “Put him in here” as he threw MY gear bag into the sinkhole.
“I don’t think so – that’s mine, put it back”
Negotiations ensued. (I won.) If I would allow them to use my bag, they would buy me a new one – whatever kind I wanted. “Okay.”

We again descended, taking my gear bag with us. Stopping at the ledge, I unzipped my gear bag. I took a slow, deep breath, then, I gently grasped the middle button on the shirt of the victim. Lifting gently, he rose from the muck of that ledge. I slowly lowered him into the gear bag, all the while hoping that the head would stay attached. (It did). We surfaced. I said, “Here’s the top half, I’m going back for the other half.” G.W. said, “Here’s a croker sack or something that was near the body…” It turned out that he, in fact, had the lower half of the victim, – brown corduroy pants, with boots sticking out the other end. I didn’t realize that, and once again descended into the dark water. They had used our guide line to haul up the blocks and I missed the ledge as I continued my descent.
I gently landed on the bottom. Looking to my right I noticed a pair of white tennis shoes – with legs attached, protruding from the silt. I looked to my left – and there was yet another set of legs…My gauge read 55 ft., I was too deep. At this time I decided that I had had enough. I surfaced and announced to the authorities, “I’ve got bad news and I’ve got worse news.”

“What’s the bad news?” they asked.
“I couldn’t find the lower half.”
“That’s OK; your buddy brought it up…What’s the worse news?”
“I found two more bodies…”

Everyone agreed that it was probably a good time to suspend operations for the day. We got out of our gear. The sheriff’s had a big “discussion” about whose patrol car the body was going into the trunk of… It was bad; the smell was not that of lilacs and daises. Neither of them had bothered to call for an ambulance or a hearse. They asked us for a “favor”. Reluctantly, we agreed. G.W. and I got into my truck and rolled the windows up, we then backed up to where the body was. They put the gear bag into the back of the truck and we took off, headed for the morgue. We didn’t talk a lot during that trip, each of us were lost in our own thoughts. At one point along the way, I remember thinking, “Right about now, I should be pulling into the driveway of my girlfriend’s house, getting ready to join her and her parents for Sunday dinner…But, I’m driving down US98 with a dead guy in my gear bag, being escorted by three police cruisers with blue lights flashing.” It just seemed surreal. Anyway, we dropped the body off at the morgue, and they asked us not to speak to anyone about this as they didn’t yet know whom or what this involved. They also wanted us back at the sinkhole the next day at 8:00 am – to run a line to the 2nd and 3rd bodies – for the Leon Co. Sheriff’s Dive Team and the FDCLE (Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement).
G.W. and I went to McDonalds in Perry and got a burger, it was way past dinner time. We left, headed back home towards Greenville.

I dropped G.W. off at his house and continued toward mine. I was almost home, less than half a mile, when I met a truck. It kicked up a sizeable rock that hit my windshield, just in front of my face. The windshield literally exploded. I thought that I had been shot, checking for blood – I couldn’t find any, but I thought “they” have found me already…I almost jumped out!

The next day we made our dive and ran a line to the other two bodies. The authorities made the recoveries, and when they surfaced with the 3rd body, they had some “extra parts”. In all there were four victims, two men, ages 21 and 39 and two females, sisters, 14 and 16. The men had picked up the girls at a bar near Springfield, FL (Panama City area) and they were going to a secluded beach named Sandy Creek, to do a little “partying”. They picked the wrong place to go. That night a major drug smuggling operation was going down at Sandy Creek, 40 tons of Colombian pot was being unloaded from a 65ft shrimp boat – the Gunsmoke. The four victims were in a pickup truck heading down the road when they met a guard who stopped them. A confrontation took place and the driver was shot through the chest. The others ran. They were subsequently caught and tied up. All four were put into the pickup which was then loaded into one of the semi trailers being loaded with pot. They drove them some 100 miles to the sinkhole where the other three were executed, each one shot in the back of the head. They weighted each body with 5 cement blocks, and dumped them in the sink. We came along six months later and found them.

Awaiting his execution on Florida’s death row, Walter Gale Steinhorst died of natural causes in September of 1999. He spent 21 years on death row for his role in what became known as the Sandy Creek Murders. David Goodwin’s jury recommended a life sentence, but the judge over ruled them and gave him a death sentence. The Florida Supreme Court later over turned that decision and he is still in prison. Charlie Hughes eluded capture for three years. He was on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list. At his murder trial the jury deadlocked. He bargained for a 15 year sentence, but served less than 5 years. The other smugglers were granted immunity.
The Gunsmoke now rests in 60 feet of water some 15 miles offshore of St. Petersburg, FL. She still held about 10 tons of pot when she was discovered.

As for me, this pretty much wrapped up my career in black water diving. I started cave diving, and, pretty soon, got myself into more shit; stupid shit, oh shit, and deep shit…But that’s another story.

6. September 2009 Höhlen (caves)

1 Kommentar to Shit

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