tampabay.com

Autopsy performed on shackled body pulled from bay

Passengers aboard the Bay Spirit spotted the body Tuesday and helped pull it from the river. The corpse has not been identified.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published April 5, 2006


TAMPA - Ruth Harms signed up for a sightseeing tour of Tampa Bay, hoping for a glimpse of pelicans, spoonbills and dolphins.

She and 38 other passengers on the Bay Spirit did see local wildlife on the Tuesday evening cruise, but they also made a gruesome discovery: a dead man floating in the bay, its ankles shackled.

"It was really disturbing," said Harms, an educator from Amherst, Mass. "It was really upsetting."

An autopsy was completed Wednesday afternoon, but the cause of death was still pending. The man's identity also remained a mystery. Police say the man appears to be white or Hispanic and in his 20s or 30s. There were no obvious signs of injury. Witnesses said the man was wearing khaki shorts and a blue jacket.

He does not appear to match the description of anyone reported missing in Tampa, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. She declined to discuss the condition of the body, including whether he was shackled.

"We're trying to determine if it was a homicide," she said.

Harms and her fellow passengers were in town for a conference on federal grants that fund mentoring programs for elementary and middle school students. Most of the attendees live on the East Coast.

They spent Tuesday afternoon listening to workshops on mentoring at-risk kids and helping parents. About 5:40 p.m., a group of educators left the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel for the two-hour tour.

They listened as Lucinda Sewall, a Florida Aquarium employee, pointed out bird species, and Capt. Jimmy Griffin steered.

"It was beautiful," Harms said. She and a group of other passengers discussed the night as they sat at a conference table in the hotel Wednesday morning.

The boat was crossing the shipping channel when someone on board spotted the corpse. A freighter was headed toward the body, so Griffin pulled the body onto the dive platform near the back of the boat, said Andrea Davis, spokeswoman for the aquarium.

"It's what any other concerned citizen would do," she said.

He radioed the Coast Guard, and the StarShip, a nearby boat, heard the call and radioed as well.

"We all come to each other's assistance out there," said Troy Manthey, president of StarShip.

Security guards with the aquarium also received a radio dispatch from the boat. They then contacted the Tampa Police Department, which responded "very quickly," Griffin told Davis. The captain had a working cell phone, but he thought it best to let security handle that and focus on the passengers, Davis said. No one on the boat called 911, which delayed word of the body getting to Tampa police.

The passengers stayed to the front of the boat, the body near the back, Griffin told Davis.

"There was nothing chaotic about it," said.

Harms didn't look at the man's face, but she saw his ankles were shackled. Griffin told Davis that he didn't look closely at the body.

The cruise was supposed to end at 7:45 p.m., but passengers didn't get off the boat until about 9 p.m., Harms said.

"It was definitely an experience, not one you'd want to repeat," she said.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com