A woman calls from a boat in Hernando's Centipede Bay. Authorities find her, her husband and mother-in-law dead.
By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 19, 2002
It was 4:30 a.m. Thursday when Joan Shiver, aboard a 30-foot pontoon boat in the shallow waters off the Hernando County coast, pulled out her cell phone.
She called her son-in-law, Chief Ron Otterbacher of the Orange County Sheriff's Office, and told him she was in great danger.
An hour later, a search helicopter beamed a circle of light across the calm waters of Centipede Bay, revealing a cream-colored boat on a patch of rocks a half-mile from shore. It appeared to have drifted away from its anchor.
Inside the boat, deputies found the bodies of Byron Shiver, 59, and his mother, Louise, 79. In the water nearby, lay Shiver's wife, Joan, 60.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office would not disclose information about the investigation Thursday. Lt. Joe Paez said detectives did not know whether the case was a double-murder and suicide or a triple homicide.
"A whodunit is hard enough," said Sheriff Rich Nugent. "Add a boat and water, and it gets complicated."
The small fishing community of Hernando Beach along the Gulf of Mexico was flooded with patrol cars shortly after sunrise. Relatives of the Shivers arrived in four cars, unfolded portable chairs and waited for word about their loved ones. When it came, they hugged each other, smoked cigarettes and wept.
Byron and Joan Shiver, who married in 1981, lived in Orlando, as did Byron's mother, Louise.
"They were just three of the greatest people you would ever meet," said a teary-eyed Paul Shiver, 38, the dead couple's son.
Authorities do not yet know exactly what happened on the pontoon boat, which belonged to the Shivers' son-in-law.
Shrimpers said they saw the boat anchored when they went to sea Wednesday afternoon and picked it up on their radar when they returned about 4 a.m. Thursday.
"Nothing unusual was happening," said shrimper Tom Johnson, 31.
Neighbors of the Shivers said both Byron and Joan had several children from previous relationships, and relatives visited their home often.
The Shivers had been renting a Cape Cod-style home off Ridgewood Street in Orlando, said neighbor Jay Lemmen.
He described the couple as thoughtful and friendly, helping to organize at least one neighborhood party since moving in about two years ago.
Joan was sweet and attractive, more outgoing than her husband, Lemmen said. Byron was a "big old guy," a quiet handyman who could fix any air conditioning or plumbing problem on the block, Lemmen said.
The couple retired from their commercial landscaping business, Shiver's Plants, several weeks ago, Lemmen said. They boated occasionally and pulled the large pontoon boat in a nearby church parking lot last weekend, Lemmen said. He thought the Shivers left Monday or early Tuesday for the coast. Shiver's mother, Louise, went with them.
Louise had recently fallen down the stairs and was staying with her son as she recuperated, Lemmen said.
"They were all very close," Lemmen said.
Lt. Paez said the Shivers had been known to anchor the boat in the Gulf of Mexico for several days.
The couple was known around Orlando for buying and restoring an old tin-roofed cracker house in Pine Castle, a historic Orlando town, in the late 1980s. The house, built for two Pine Castle pioneers, was a genteel showplace featured in Orlando's Annual Spring Tour of Homes in 1990.
Visitors saw their rose garden and gazebo, a long porch with white wicker furniture and vintage farm tools. The home had hardwood maple floors and was decorated in a Victorian style.
Joan said the house reminded her of her grandmother's tin-roofed home in Fayetteville, N.C., and that she instantly fell in love.
"The first time I saw it, I hit the brakes and almost caused a three-car collision," Joan told an Orlando newspaper.
Her husband, Byron, was known for his barbecue skills. He and four friends called themselves the "Bloomin' Idiots" and beat out seasoned cooks at a barbecue contest in Orlando in 1992. Byron and his team cooked meat over dried orange wood in a special cooker made from a 300-gallon oil drum.
Paez said it was hard to fathom how the three lives ended in the beautiful, quiet area known for its grouper and sea bass, shrimp and blue crabs.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office sent its dive team to help collect evidence around the boat, which was surrounded by 2 to 3 feet of water, Paez said. Deputies towed the boat to shore and were still collecting evidence late Thursday.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office also impounded a white van and trailer that the Shivers had left in a parking lot beside the Hernando County Public Boat Ramp, as well as another car.
Paez said he thought detectives would release more information on the case today.
"We're working as quickly as we can," he said.
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Orlando Sentinel.