Stories from a Game Warden
Episode 4 “Tragedy on the Water”
Disclaimer: All names have been intentionally changed.
As state law enforcement officers, Wildlife Officers in Florida are responsible for investigating boating accidents, from minor mishaps to full blown boating homicide investigations. I’ve grown to become almost numb to the blood and injuries and always tried to look at each accident objectively without being affected by the pain and suffering caused to boating accident victims or their families. Occasionally, the tragedy would get to me emotionally and the very first boating accident I responded to did very much so.
I was in my first week on the job and was on water patrol on the north end of Lake Okeechobee with my Field Training Officer, Jeff Greer. We received a call on our radio about a missing boater on the rim canal in our patrol area. A john boat was found idling in circles with the operator missing. Jeff and I arrived in our patrol boat and found the potential boating accident site. The empty john boat was stopped by another boater and was tied up to a dock before our arrival.
The job at hand was to first locate and rescue any survivors. After a lengthy search of the area, we could not locate any survivors, we then proceeded into recovery mode. It was our mission to recover any victims. This would bring closure to the family and provide clues in our investigation.
During this period in the early 90’s, there were very few public safety dive teams in existence able to help in the recovery of a missing victim who sank to the bottom of the lake. We would have to try and find and retrieve any deceased victims by ourselves. It was commonplace back then for Game Wardens to have various hooks, chains, and ropes to get the job done, which is crude by today’s standards. Our body retrieving device consisted of a rope fastened to both ends of a metal pipe (similar to the shape of a waterski rope and handle). Attached to the pipe was a series of large weighted treble hooks spaced 6 inches apart. This pipe and treble hook contraption were drug along the bottom of a body of water and the treble hooks would easily hook any of the victim’s clothing. We would then pull the victim aboard and transport the body to the medical examiner’s office.
The procedure worked very well as long as we were dragging the hooks in the correct area. The problem we had during this accident; we were unsure of the actual accident site as there were no witnesses. Jeff operated the boat, and I lowered the hooks into the dark water. We dragged the hooks back and forth in a search pattern in hopes of finding the body. This went on for several hours with no luck.
We were approached by an angler in a bass boat who offered to help us look for the submerged body with his depthfinder. We needed all the help we could get. The bass boat started searching just outside of our original search pattern. Within minutes, the man in the bass boat yelled to us that he had found an object with his depthfinder. Jeff idled over to the area while I drug the treble hooks along the bottom of the rim canal. Just as suspected, I hooked something. I pulled up the object and it turned out to be our victim, an elderly gentleman.
Retrieving the victim was the first time I saw or handled a dead body. I emotionally handled it surprisingly well at first and Jeff and I transferred the victim into our patrol boat. We turned the victim over to the medical examiner and finished up our investigation of the scene and john boat.
Later that day, we met the victim’s elderly wife at the medical examiner’s office to confirm the identity of the deceased man. It was at this point when the tragedy became very real for me in an emotional way. Watching the sheer shock, horror, and sadness of the victim’s wife as she cried out to her deceased husband laying on the medical examiner’s table was heart breaking! I can still hear her crying out to her husband like it was yesterday.
Being a Wildlife Officer or a First Responder is something I’ve always taken very seriously and notifying the next of kin is an emotional but very important part of the job. I learned family members would vividly remember those tragic moments for the rest of their lives. During my career, I usually said a prayer before notifying family members of their loved one loss of life. I always prayed for dignity, sympathy, and comfort during those difficult times.
Members of the public (or media) often do not realize that law enforcement officers are people too, with thoughts, emotions, and feelings affected by the job we have done and the tragedy we have witnessed. I only hope that during those difficult times of the notification process I presented myself in a professional, compassionate, and respectful way.
By Steve Wayne
About the Author:
Steve Wayne has spent 30 years as a Fish and Wildlife Officer in the state of Florida. Steve has worked in various roles and locations throughout the state and has promoted to the level of Area Captain supervising 30 officers in 3 counties. During his career, Steve was selected as the State Wildlife Officer of the Year and 16 years later was selected as the Statewide Investigator of the Year by both his agency and from the State Law Enforcement Chief’s Association. In 2019, Steve was part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Port Investigations team which received national honors as Team of the Year.