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October 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Was There a Cover-Up in This Diverís Death?

many questions about search-and-rescue efforts for Rob Stewart

from the October, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Do you know the legal difference between a "rescue dive" and a "recovery dive?" That is a major matter of importance in the lawsuit over the death of Rob Stewart.

Following up on the story we wrote in our August issue, the investigation into the death of Stewart, the filmmaker behind the awardwinning 2007 documentary Sharkwater, is getting murkier. The Monroe County Medical Examiner has threatened criminal action against the divers who recovered Stewart's body off Islamorada after he died on a rebreather dive with Horizon Dive Adventures in January 2017. Thomas Beaver, the medical examiner, says private divers should not have undertaken the recovery effort -- especially because they were hired by Horizon Dive Adventures' attorney in anticipation of a lawsuit.

Did He Drift, Or Did He Sink?

Four months after Stewart's body was recovered, the filmmaker's family filed a lawsuit against Horizon, contending that the crew failed to monitor and help Stewart after he surfaced and waited to board the boat. He sank shortly after surfacing. Early reports suggested Stewart had simply drifted away, which led to a three-day air and sea search, but in fact Stewart had dropped immediately below the surface.

Why did he not stay afloat with his BC-wing inflated? If Stewart was unable to inflate his wing, it might contradict testimony from those on the boat who said he was able to signal he was OK. Peter Sotis, his dive buddy and rebreather mentor, had already boarded and become unconscious on the boat deck, where people tried to revive him.

In his witness statement to the Monroe County Sheriff, David Wilkerson, the boat captain, said Stewart had "become incoherent," but nobody attempted to get into the water to help him before he dropped and drowned. Wilkerson says Stewart had disappeared in the space of a few minutes. So why did those on the boat allege he had drifted off?

David Concannon, a trial attorney representing rEvo, the manufacturer of the rebreather unit Stewart was using, told Undercurrent, "Sotis was being attended to by his wife, a doctor. Brock Cahill, Stewart's filmmaking partner, jumped into the water to do a surface search after the boat came back [to where Stewart was last seen] and Stewart had already disappeared." Cahill is another subject of the ongoing investigation because he was also on the Horizon boat when rescue divers went out four days after the fatal dive to recover Stewart's body.

An Illegal Rescue Dive

The rescue divers were originally identified as members of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, which later denied it had a dive unit. Then a Miami Herald article reported that an attorney representing Horizon Dive Adventures' insurance company had retained Craig S. Jenni, a Boca Raton attorney involved in many diving accident lawsuits, to join the dive to recover Stewart's body -- and take photos as possible evidence.

Court documents show that, besides Jenni, the recovery divers included Horizon Dive Adventures owner Dan Dawson and one of his employees.

The only diver affiliated with Key Largo's fire department was Rob Bleser, another dive shop owner who had led dozens of other underwater rescues and recoveries. Bleser radioed the Sherriff's office, saying he was going out to search using the call sign for his "fire boat," even though he was on Horizon's boat, and the fire department doesn't have a fire boat. Since then, the fire department has distanced itself from Bleser, although it was he, using a remotely operated underwater robot, who located Stewart's body at a depth of 200 feet.

Beaver emailed Bleser, "There was no communication with my office, and no approval was requested or given. I consider your actions and the actions of those involved in the recovery a flagrant violation . . . and a complete disregard for the authority of the Medical Examiner." Florida law states that a person who takes actions like Bleser without a district medical examiner's approval can be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor.

Bleser's email reply to Beaver conveniently omits any mention of the recovery divers' names or identities, misrepresents the circumstances of the search for Stewart, and misconstrues who had the authority to supervise the recovery operation. He never informed Beaver, the sheriff or the Coast Guard before going out on the recovery mission.

Defense Tactics

Defense attorneys are using the turmoil over how Stewart's rescue and recovery was handled to boost their clients' credibility. In its court filings, the legal team representing rEvo states that Horizon Dive Adventures created a criminal conspiracy by tampering with evidence in order to misdirect authorities' suspicions away from it, and to frame rEvo and Sotis for causing Stewart's death.

Concannon told Undercurrent, "Bleser and Horizon specifically did not have permission [to recover the body], and Bleser was informed of this two days before the recovery. Horizon and Jenni made the recovery anyway on February 3. In the interim, they acted as though they were only performing a search, not a recovery. While the Coast Guard and Stewart's family were out searching an area the size of Connecticut because they though Stewart was alive and drifting on the surface, the people who actually saw him sink were at the site, ready to do a search and recovery, after being forbidden to do so."

And now the defense says Beaver also made a major error in his handling of the Stewart investigation. He decided the cause of death was hypoxia, but Concannon says that's a misinformed ruling. "The dive computer data was downloaded by the Coast Guard with the assistance of both rEvo and Shearwater (the computer's manufacturer), and in the presence of the Stewart family attorneys, on July 31, 2017. The medical examiner was invited to attend, but he did not. A copy of the data was made available to him, but he did not review it before issuing his report in August 2017. As of May 2018, he still had not reviewed the data. Consequently, his finding that Rob Stewart suffered hypoxia was not made after considering this evidence. The dive computer data shows Stewart could not have been hypoxic. We filed the data printouts in court."

Beaver is no longer the medical examiner, and Monroe County has begun a search to fill his post.

Meanwhile, Stewart's spirit still lives -- on film, that is. He's the narrator of Sharkwater Extinction, an exposť on the shark-finning industry and a sequel to Sharkwater, which had its premiere last month at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival.

-- John Bantin

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