Monday, July 20, 2009

The Sea Monster In The Lake

His father told me that he and his wife moved to America and became citizens a year and a half before their son, Elijah (a pseudonym) was born.

Apartheid was and still is alive and well in South Africa, Elijah's mother said. The young native couple wanted a future, a life. They'd heard of other Africans who emigrated to America. They followed suit and ended up in Seattle where Elijah was born one year later.

He was their pride, joy and only child, because Elijah's mother said there was something wrong with her insides and she could have no more children.

She glowed as she described Elijah to me, how he had taken to playing with balls as a baby, then kicking them as he learned to walk. Over the years he became the star of every soccer team he was on. His coaches told his parents he would be World Class.

He was a typical pre-teen in the melting pot called America. Popular at his school, he was a handsome, friendly, funny, lean, soccer-playing machine. Every day after school, every weekend, Saturdays and Sundays, whenever he could, he played soccer.

So one day, two summers ago, he was playing soccer, with some friends, by Lake Washington. There is swimming area near where they played.

The swimming area in Lake Washington was roped off, had a life guard, a secured wooden float in the middle, and signs posted everywhere with hours and rules. People picnicked on the beach and swam to the wooden float where they sat, sunned, dove off and swam back to shore.

Elijah and his friends been playing soccer for hours that day. It was in the upper 80's.
The boys were hot and decided to go for a swim.

Elijah was a good swimmer his parents said. They gave him swimming lessons since he was a baby. He spent countless summer days in that very lake with his friends.

On this particular day, three days after his 12th birthday, the boys jumped in the water in their soccer shorts and swam to the wooden float. There were four people on the float that day, one was a doctor and his 10 year old son. The water was about 10 feet deep at the float.

From this point forward, what happened next is both a known and unknown.

One of Elijah's friends said Elijah smiled, waved at him, pointed at the wooden float, then dove under the water and never came up.

Elijah's friend called his name, then the other kids started calling out and pointing to where Elijah disappeared.

The doctor on the wooden float saw the kids screaming and pointing. The doctor told his son to stay put and dove into the water looking for Elijah. After surfacing and resurfacing unsuccessfully three time -- it was on the fourth attempt when the doctor said his hand grabbed what he thought at first was seaweed, then turned out to be Elijah's fingers.

With the help of others, the doctors got Elijah's lifeless body on the raft and attempted to revive him. Meantime, people alerted by the chain of of cries and screams from the wooden float to the beach, made multiple calls to 911 on their cell phones.

Despite the speed of the paramedics' arrival, despite the collective and desperate desire of everyone present for the best outcome, the worst happened.

Elijah died.

Two weeks after his death, Elijah's father called an attorney who called me because the family wanted to know why Elijah really died. They didn't believe he simply drowned. They thought there was more to the story than that because they said there were rumors of several deaths of children in that area of the lake.

Elijah's mother said he was a good swimmer. He was healthy. She said the police told her and her husband, that Elijah's death was an accidental drowning, but they didn't believe it.

The lawyer who sent me to see Elijah's parents was a compassionate guy with a set of 12 year old twin boys. He said after hearing the story over the phone, after feeling the pain in Elijah's dad's voice, he couldn't turn the man away.

So he told the parents he would open the case for investigation purposes only.
That meant the attorney would pay me to investigate the drowning and... if some person or some entity is found liable and... there is insurance money available... then, the attorney will proceed further.

Otherwise , if it was tragic drowning and there was no fault on the part of anyone else, the lawyers would step away from the case at no cost to Elijah's parents.

I made this all clear to Elijah's mother and father as I met them in their living room and they showed me the shrine they'd built to their son. I went through photo albums, saw videotapes of his soccer playing.

I conducted my interview in their home, got the facts of the accident, the witnesses, time-line, then asked them two key questions.

First, I asked them if they believed it was possible their son just drowned. Maybe he got some kind of cramp, or maybe got caught in something underwater, or maybe swallowed too much water that quickly got into his lungs. Maybe he just drowned. They both said "No!" at exactly the same time.

The next question was the obvious. Then what do you think happened?

The mother spoke first.

"We think he was eaten by a sea monster."

The father went on to explain there is a rumor among all the young people and others who frequent that lake that a sea monster has been sighted in it.

The kids say if you are there at night, you can sometimes see its long, spiky silver back glistening along the surface of the water. They say there are weird sounds by the lake at night, deep hums and moans. They said many other children have drowned in that area and the sea monster got them too. They said everyone knows about the monster in the lake and someone is keeping it a big secret.

"We're not doing this for the money," Elijah's father said. "We're doing this to save other children who swim there every day."

I will spare you the thoughts that ran through my head as this story was woven for me.

Suffice to say, there is no accounting for grief, loss, the death of a child. And if these parents believed their son was eaten by a sea monster, then I would help them determine whether or not that was true.

I asked them for their son's death certificate. They had one ready.
I looked first at cause of death. The Medical examiner wrote, "accidental drowning."

I asked them if they had, or we could get, an autopsy report. The father said no. In their faith and beliefs, an autopsy is not allowed. The human body cannot be desecrated in any way after death. It had something to do with the afterlife.

They were very insistent with everyone -- the police, doctors, and Medical Examiner -- that no autopsy was to be performed.

The M.E. honored their request. After all, there were witnesses present, the boy was swimming, something happened, he drowned. It happens all the time.

If there had been evidence of a sea monster attack, or any attack, the M.E. would do an autposy regardless of the family's request.

I called the attorney from my car and gave him this info while I followed Elijah's mother and father in their car to the lake, so they could show me the exact spot where their son, their only child, drowned.

I talked to lifeguards, other swimmers. I photographed the scene, the signs, kids swimming, the dock in the middle of the lake. I photographed Elijah's parents holding each other, sobbing, at the shore near where their son died. Then I sent his parents home and told them I needed to work the investigation on my own. I said the attorney would get back to them.

I stayed at that lake that night until after dark. People swam despite the fact the lifeguards left. I came came a few more times at odd hours after dark. I did sea monster surveillance -- looked for movement and shadows in the water, listened for Sea Monster sounds. There's was nothing but the usual cars of kids, lovers and drug deals.

I researched the lake, its history, strange occurances, and drownings. I found plenty of legends -- from giant sturgeon to a rampant caiman, but no evidence of a real life sea monster devouring children.

By the time I finished my investigation, the attonrey had the M.E.'s file. The body was intact, not autopsied per the parents request.

All findings and evidence, including the photos I studied of Elijah's dead body, indicated no bruises, bites, cuts, rips, tears. This as what led the police, doctors, the M.E., attorney and me to the conclusion that the boy suffered an accidental downing.

I suspect, had an autopsy been performed, water would have found in Elijah's lungs. But without that autopsy, that is simply suspicion, not fact.

The boy could have swallowed too much water, had a cramp, a heart attack, a brain embolism. The universe is random, ruthless and inconsistent in its dealings with the young, old and everyone inbetween.

I left it to the attorney to tell Elijah's parents our investigation concluded their son was not eaten by a sea monster.

Elijah is gone. I like to believe he is in whatever version of heaven his parent's religious beliefs are consistent with. I know he is at peace. I know his parents are not. They never will be.

The blessing and burden of being a private investigator lies is one word: "truth."
People pay you for it, yet sometimes they don't want it... don't believe it... and won't accept it.

Last I heard, Elijah's father was on his third private investigator, still looking for that Sea Monster in Washington.


  1. The sea monster left no marks. My hunch is that after the strenuous soccer game he cramped up. Unless you've had a cramp in the water, you cannot appreciate how paralyzing one can be. I have had them in my calf and if I didn't know how to float I could have drowned.

    That doesn't help Elija's folks who want a better reason.

  2. fwiw david, i think you are right on. btween that, the heat, the race to the water, the swim, then the suddeness of the cramp. it brought him down.