AQUAMEN: LMPD Dive Team creeps through murky waters, looking for evidence
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's 3 a.m. on a chilly October Saturday, but you're not safe and snug in your bed. Not anymore.
About an hour ago, you got the call from police investigators: a murder suspect leaped from the Sherman Minton bridge in an effort to escape his police pursuers. The last anyone saw of him was when his body splashed into the cold Ohio River water three hours ago. You hope for the best, but deep down, you fear the worst: the rescue mission is now a recovery mission.
After meeting with police and first responders on the banks, you and your buddies don dry suits and prepare to dive into the river. You've decided to focus on an area of about 50 meters, and as you slip into the muddy waters of the Ohio, you take one last look at the stars in the clear autumn sky above. Then the water covers your head.
Instantly you're enveloped by darkness. And cold – despite your suit being waterproof. As a diver once put it, "It's not a wet cold – it's a dry cold." You can see nothing through your goggles. As you sink deeper into the blackness, you feel something slither past your leg – perhaps a catfish or a turtle. You'll never know. The only sound you hear is the static from the comm system in your ears, and the gasps of your own breathing through the regulator.
For a moment you experience vertigo, not knowing which way is up or down. It's a sickening feeling, but it only lasts a moment. Soon you feel your boots sinking into the muddy river bed, and you begin your search.
Your eyes are worthless this time. It's the middle of the night, and even if it wasn't, you're kicking up too much silt anyway. But you feel with your hands. As you systematically cover meter after meter, you wave your hands through the muddy riverbed, trying to feel anything on the surface. In the semi-weightlessness of the water, you trip over something. Probably an old tree branch.
Several minutes go by. An hour. You've only felt rocks, tree branches, and what you're 85 percent sure was an old discarded gas can. Before long, you'll have to surface.
Then your gloved fingers enclose around something. Several somethings, actually. They're long and spindly. If you were in the ocean, you might guess them to be the legs of a crab.
But you're not in the ocean. And as your heart races, you conclude that this isn't a crab. These are fingers.
That's when you realize the search is over. You're done. You're holding hands with a corpse.
It may sound like the plot of a horror movie, but for the men of the Louisville Metro Police Dive Team, it's just another night in the water.
Missing (Toy) Guns
It's a much different scene on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 10, at Long Run Park in east Louisville. Hours from now, a series of storms will move through the city, bringing downs trees and power lines and knocking out electricity for over 52,000 residents.
But you wouldn't know that just before noon. The sky is a clear blue, the sun is out in full force, the air is humid and the temperature is in the mid 80s.
Sailboaters are out enjoying the park's 28-acre fishing lake. And so is the LMPD Dive Team.
"It's freakin' hot!" shouts one dive instructor. "Stay hydrated! Don't suit up until you're ready to go into the water, okay? Those dive suits are hot!"
The dozen-or-so team members aren't on any life-or-death mission today. They're training. And the scenario is simple: two toy guns have been hidden in the lake, covered with silt as though they've been under the water for a long time. The team must divide into two groups, dive and find both of the weapons.
Three divers suit up and wade into the water. Others, designated "tenders," remain on the banks, holding tethers that are gripped by each diver – one tender per diver. Also on the banks is a small tent, beneath which team members are crowding around a communications device on a table. The device enables the team to hear divers speaking underwater, and talk back to them, when necessary.
"Currently the water visibility – we have 4-5 feet, which is rare for us," explained Ofc. Dale Gallagher, one of the divers. "We normally don't have that kind of visibility. The depth right now, max, we're going is only eight feet… you have to keep your body off of the bottom because you'll silt it up so bad you can't see."
More than SCUBA divers
The LMPD dive team is an auxiliary unit of the Louisville Metro Police Department. The team is part-time, which means all the team members have other roles within the department, such as detectives or beat officers. They are all sworn police officers, with at least three years of experience at LMPD. And they all share one thing in common: they love the water. Each team member was a certified master diver – and public safety diver – before they even joined the team. They also have at least three years on the police force.
And just like a high school football team, they have to try out. And those that aren't up to standards can expect to be cut.
"You've got to be able to swim at least 400 meters in less than 11 minutes," said Ofc. Chad Crick, one of the dive instructors for the team. "You've got to be able to swim 25 feet underwater on one breath. You have to be able to at least tread water for 15 minutes. You have to be able to put on all your SCUBA gear, go into the deep end of the pool, take it all off, turn your air off, come up, take a breath, go back down, turn your air back on, put everything back on and then come up."
Crick says these divers are committed. They're willing to get up and go when they get that 3 a.m. call in cold weather. But there's one thing they're not, according to Crick. They're not just SCUBA divers.
"It's not SCUBA diving," Crick says. "This is a job. SCUBA diving is going down to the Bahamas or going down to Mexico somewhere, in the Caribbean, and going SCUBA diving – looking at sharks, looking at stingrays and stuff like that. We don't do that here."
So what do they look for?
Simply put, they look for bodies. They look for weapons. They look for discarded IDs. They look for any evidence that may have been used in the commission of a crime. And as the divers explain, sometimes that's not easy.
From time to time, the team will be called upon for swift water rescues. But one of the more grisly tasks involves finding bodies of drowning victims, suspects or people who have committed suicide in the water.
Sgt. Jerry Hucklebee says that once they get the call for a search, they know the pressure is on, because the family is depending on them.
"The water is unforgiving on a body," said Sgt. Jerry Huckleberry. "So if they want a viewing at the funeral home, more than likely we need to get that body within the first 72 hours. If we don't, then they're probably not gonna have the viewing. So that's what we try to concentrate on most."
Crick says the pressure of trying to bring closure to the family is compounded by the psychological pressure of searching for something so grisly in difficult surroundings.
"A body being underwater any length of time – it usually doesn't look the same as what it did when it went in," Crick said. "The thing about that is that you don't actually see them, but you don't know when you're going to run into them. It's like one of those things where you go into dark room blindfolded with no windows at nighttime, and you're crawling around, and it's like, ‘What I'm I gonna bump into?'"
For Crick, this experience became intensely personal when Shepherdsville resident Tony Reynolds was killed in a boating accident. Calling Reynolds a "friend of the dive team," Crick said he often worked on LMPD police boats.
"He did a lot for us, and was just an all-around great guy," Crick said. "It was unfortunate that he was involved in the accident."
That's why Crick said he was quick to drive to Taylorsville Lake to offer his assistance to search for the body. But, he said, the search took its toll emotionally.
"I was trying to do whatever I could to go down and find him, because he's your friend, and you've got to get there and help, and help, and help," Crick said. "But when we didn't seem to locate him in a short matter of time, it started to weigh on your mind, as far as the psychology goes. Am I the best person for this job because I know the guy?"
"At that time, I came up and I said, ‘Look, my mind is not where it should be right now on this dive…and I don't feel comfortable diving because it's someone I know.'"
You found WHAT?
But not every search involves recovering the deceased. The team often searches for weapons, cars, tossed IDs and other evidence. And over the course of multiple searches, they say they've found some pretty bizarre items in the depths.
"We'll be honest with you: we've found all kinds of stuff," Sgt. Huckleberry said. "A lot of times, like in the Ohio River, a lot of people discard – I hate to say it – washing machines, dryers, 55-gallon drums. There's a lot of rebar down there, chain link fence."
Ofc. Dale Gallagher says has seen his share of junk, too.
"Cash registers. Safes. And of course we're always looking for weapons and cars," Gallagher said.
And not all of the vehicles are recent. The Ohio River acts as a sort of aquatic time capsule. Gallagher says the team once discovered a vehicle that looked like a cross between an ambulance and an ice cream truck, that he believes dated back to the 1940s or 50s.
Diver Jimmy Johnson says he found something a bit more dangerous.
"When we dove at Fort Knox looking for a machine gun a while back…we came across an unexploded 105 round that was in the Salt River," he said. "I'm swimming along – and of course there's a lot of debris in the Salt anyway – but as I'm feeling around…at first I thought I had a piece of pipe, because I felt a subtly hollow base, and then I started feeling back towards the nose and then I went, 'Oh crap. That's a fuse.'"
Sgt. Huckleberry says his team found something unexpected during a search of a pond in January.
"We actually found an urn of remains," he said. "We didn't know at the time, but they were intentionally put in the pond where we were diving, by the family members….evidently, it was an older gentleman and he liked to fish in that lake, and they felt it was important for his remains to be there."
"So in that case we just go ahead and put him back."
Johnson says it's not uncommon for the team dive into the water looking for one thing, but pulling out something else. That's what he says happened during a recent training exercise in Cox Park – similar to today's – when the team had to dive into the water to recover a plastic gun.
"We throw a plastic gun in and go to look for it…"
"…and found three other guns!" diver Charles Robinson says.
Johnson nods. "We found several real guns, and never found the plastic gun – and they were all stolen!"
One thing all the divers agree on: you never know what to expect when you're under the water. And you have to be prepared for everything.
A fully equipped diver is wearing 75 pounds of gear. That includes one air supply and two backups, a facemask with a built-in communications system, a waterproof dive suit, fins, an inflatable buoyancy compensator (to float the diver to the surface in the event of an emergency), a flashlight, a compass and cutting tools – including shears and a knife.
Johnson says visibility under the water is always a factor.
"Once the water gets stirred up and you can't see, it's actually easier to just close your eyes and just take away your sense of sight and just go by how you feel – where gravity is," he said. "If the water is cloudy and it's stirring up around you, a lot of times it can give you vertigo, because your eyes are trying to use a reference point of, like, up-and-down."
"It's like flying through a cloud," Robinson adds. "You find dark spots and you think you're going to hit something…but there's nothing there."
That waterproof dry suit is important, because sometimes, the water itself is a danger. Sgt. Huckleberry has no problem identifying the most toxic body of water his team has ever dived in: McNeely Lake.
"When we send the water samples to the Louisville Water Company, they basically advise us that it is the nastiest lake in Jefferson County," Sgt. Huckleberry said. "A lot of it is because of where the golf course is located. There's a lot of pesticides being used – a lot of fertilizers and stuff like that – so it's definitely not conducive to drink that water or to have it in close proximity to your mouth, because it could definitely make a person sick."
"I wouldn't recommend anybody swimming in it," he said. "And I'll be honest: I wouldn't recommend eating a fish out of it if that's the case."
Ofc. Crick recalls his most dangerous diving experience, which took place in 2001 or 2002, just before the Great Steamboat Race. He says he and another diver had to go under the Belle of Louisville to do a security sweep to make sure there were no explosives under the boat. It was already a tight spot, Crick says, but while they were under the boat, the Belle of Louisville unexpectedly dropped and pinned them underwater.
"We couldn't go anywhere," he said. "We were pretty much stuck. The saving grace we had was the river bottom was real muddy at the time, and real soft, so when it pushed us down, it pushed us down in the mud. So we started making mud angels for what seemed like eternity – it probably was only five minutes or so – but at that point in time, the boat raised back up."
As it turned out, a tow boat had been coming down the river pushing a barge loaded down with weight, and the resulting water displacement is what caused the Belle to drop unexpectedly.
The key to safety, he says, is to be trained for any contingency.
"I've been on the dive team for 14 years, and there's nothing that surprises me in the river," he said.
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