A Feel for Forensics

Text by Gregory Thomas

Dive team prepares to search Alameda Estuary for bullet casings. Photos: Gregory Thomas

Searching for human remains, weapons and other crime scene proof in zero visibility is a responsibility adeeply felta by the volunteer Alameda County Dive Team

AA middle-aged woman paused at the end of the pond, between laps, and studied the man in the next lane. He was fiddling with his goggles, having only swum the length of the 100 -foot( 30 m) long pool, along the bottom, in one breath.

Shead been wondering about him for weeks. His swimming habits were unique. For example, she had never seen him swim on the wateras surface. More unusual was what he did when he reached the deep end. Head sink to the bottom, shut his eyes, cross his arms over his chest, and recline there, motionless, for minutes at a time.

Sometimes head bring items down there with him: a dive mask; an underwater writing slate; a dive computer. Shead seen him on the bottom lifting lead weights. He was tall and muscled, with a thick chest. The girl guessed perhaps he was a football player in training so she asked him.

aThatas funny, a he said, smiling. aI donat play football. Iam slowly programming my bodyas responsesaso I wonat panic when Iam in the water, doing what I need to do.a

The man, 42 -year old Steven Day, was practising for a day when he might need to haul a dead body off the bottom of Lake Merritt. It wasnat out of the question, devoted his line of duty as a new recruit of the Alameda County Dive Team, a volunteer group that carries out underwater forensic work for the Sheriffas Office. When a vehicle winds up at the bottom of the Oakland Estuary, when someone throws a firearm off the Berkeley dock, or when a person is missing for too long, the dive team is called out to scour and rubs the depths in places no one insures. Itas not rescue work; itas recovery. This is the team that resulted the search effort for the body of assassination victim Laci Peterson in San Francisco Bay in 2004. Established in 1952, itas the oldest squad of its kind in the stateaperhaps the oldest in the countryaand itas voluntary. None of the members are paid for their trouble. In fact, members lose money on assignments that take time away from their jobs.

The work is physically demanding and mentally jarring

With one arm draped over the leading edge of the pool, Day explained some of that to the woman whoad been watching him. His exercises at the pool kept him sharp, he said. Then he bid her good morning, hoisted himself out of the water and strolled through the cool air to the locker room. The girl bided and supposed a moment, assimilating the new information. aI respect the work that he does, a she told me. aI wouldnat want to be in the water heas in, looking for what I imagine heas looking for.a

Steven Day get set to diving. Photos: Gregory Thomas

BlackwaterA Grad

It takes a certain kind of person to volunteer in the search for human remains in mucky lagoons and waterways. Itas cold and dark for the purposes of the water, which makes actually looking almost impossible. So the diver goes by feel alone, limbs outstretched in front of him, fanning along his sidesamaking snow angels in the mud, the team members like to say. Even if he doesnat manage to poke his thumbs against a personas decaying body heas liable to plow headfirst into, say, a roll of discarded barbwire or a stray petroleum drumaor something else.

aWhatever someone wants to get rid of and doesnat want foundathatas what weare for, a said Day, weaving through freeway trafficking in human his Jeep Wrangler one evening last fall. Day was running late to his teamas monthly meeting at a police compound in the hills above Dublin. He parked his jeep and walked into an auditorium to check in with Rebecca Gandsey, the teamas liaison in the Sheriffas Office. She handed him a plastic I.D. card and smiled.

aItas Christmas for Steven, a Gandsey said, handing Day the I.D. aHeas been waiting for this a long time.a Almost a year before he was accepted into aBlackwater Academya to undergo the teamas intensive five-month training. In March of 2011, after surfacing from a practice diving off the Berkeley dock, his training officer announced his unofficial adoption as a team member. Receiving his I.D. card formalized his achievement and membership
on the team.

Most of the team was assembled for the meetingaabout 40 humen in all, largely middle-aged, some thicker in the waist than others. They all wore the same shirt that on the back read, aAlameda County Sheriffas Officea around a single word in white capital letter: DIVER.

At the front of the room, Chief Dave McMurdie read through the litany of official business items on the nightas agenda, then he paused. The second bullet phase for the purposes of the fifth item read 9/27 Training dive, 1830 hours, Shadow Cliffs.

aI want that MAC-1 0 back! a McMurdie announced. He was talking about a mock sub-machine gun the team tossed into the Pleasanton lake a couple month ago and hadnat retrieved. Searching for fake weapons is a team exerciseapractice for hours when theyare called to look for the real thing. aItas been rusting on the bottom of Shadow Cliffs for a while now, a McMurdie said. aIad like it back.a

Team support vehicle on site. Photos: Gregory Thomas

DopeA onA aA Rope

There are 44 members on the dive teama4 3 of them are menawhose ages range from thirties to sixties. Each has personal reasons for join. The work is time-consuming, physically demanding and mentally jarring. Ask them why they do it and youall been talking about civic duty and personal responsibilityaresponses characteristic of military servicemen more than thrill-seekers. Pry a bit more, and the reasoning becomes less clear. After all, planting trees or volunteering as a traversing guard would be a much less risky route to give back to the community.

Itas dangerous work. All kinds of things can go wrong when youare looking for nasty stuff in an alien world without the luxury of sight or sound.

I became totally comfortable with being uncomfortable

aItas not rocket science in the interests of physical maneuvers. But mentally, thatas where itas difficult, a said Tom West, the oldest are part of the dive team. aPanic was a great issue.a

Last November, on a body call in Alameda, one of the team members accidentally crawled into an open culvert. He had to back outaslowly. Divers have been sliced through their suits by razor wire and fishhooks, and ensnared in fishing line. aItas like a Chinese finger prison, a West said of the webs of fishing line divers often encounter. aThe more you fight, the tighter it gets.a The former team member recalled an occasion pushing along the bottom and abruptly recognizing also that he couldnat exhale. His face had been so close to the bottom that head pushed his regulator into the muck, clogging the vents. aItas searching by Braille, a McMurdie says. aWe call it being the dope on a rope.a

Nearly every team member is useful in situations of emergency. Many are full-time dive instructors and commercial divers; some are hobbyist spear anglers, abalone divers and underwater photographers. Dayas fellow recruits include a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer and two emergency medical technicians. Apart from his perseverance and civic-mindedness, Day doesnat fit the teamas member profile. Heas not from the Bay Area, as are most of the members, or even the West Coast; heas from Tennessee. Unlike the stable career men and retired guys who volunteer for the team, Day bounces between jobs teaching school and counseling distressed youths. Heas the teamas merely black member, which defines him apart in a room of white humen in blue uniforms. And he wasnat a skilled waterman before he joined.

Recovered bullet casings. Photos: Gregory Thomas

In fact, 11 years ago, Day didnat know how to swim. Still trueahe started learning in 2001.

aI remember when I first called to find out about the team, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest, a Day said. aI objective up saying something silly like, aThereas not a lot of colour on that squad and Iad like to try out.aa

Itas hard for Day to articulate his reasons for pursuing the team. He says heas always been fascinated with crime and demise, and that heas naturally drawn to risky activities. He plays on a menas rugby team and used to run dragonboat races. Heas looking forward to exploring motorcycle ride and archery. aMaybe I only read too many Navy SEAL volumes, a Day jokes. When you press him for an answer, heall relinquish details of a past riddled with setbacks that compelled him to channel his frustrations first into swimming and then into the teamas rigorous developing program. It begins with a traumatic childhood experience.

Photo: Scott Harrison

MilitaryA Mindset

Day grew up in land-locked Memphis, near the Mississippi River but far from lakes and the beach. aThe closest water was a weed-choked, muddied area where catfish would spawn, a Day says. One hot summertime day, in 1981, when he was between fifth and sixth grades, Day and a couple of his buddies were strolling around a community pool in their neighborhood, checking out older daughters in bikinis. Then something happened that would maintain Day away from the water for the next 20 years. He was walking near the deep aim when, out of nowhere, his older brother blindsided him and heaved him into the water.

aThe first thing I realized was that Iad been hurled. Next thing I know, Iam gasping and hacking and coughing underwater, a Day recalls. His buddies were tossed in too. None of them could swim. aWe were like a daisy chain of newborns drowning, a he says. They struggled to the side of the pool and managed to pull themselves out. But now everyone, including the girls in bikinis, knew he couldnat swimming. aAfter that, I didnat want anything to do with swimming pools.a

The day planner became a diary of his relationship with the water

Day arrived in the Bay Area in 1996 to take a teaching task, and soon are participating in night school to get a statute degree. That summer, between his 1st and 2nd years in the program, was atumultuousa as Day puts it. He broke up with his girlfriend of six years but had to stick out living with her for months until she found a new place. During the working day, he ran papers as an extern at the U.S. Attorneyas Office in San Francisco. He bought expensive shoes and suits he couldnat genuinely afford for that job and more than once he fell asleep in them, on his couch, after long, stressful days.

Photo: Scott Harrison

It was one of those nights, well after midnight, after he had passed out on his lounge in work attire, when Day took his first steps in a new direction.

The apartment where he was living is located on a side street that dead-ends at a 12 -acre green space marking the point where Oakland becomes hilly. Hereas his account of what happened that night in 2001. In an uncharacteristic bout of sleepwalking, Day had built his way from his apartment into a nearby park, unconsciously, coming to only when his knees collided with an iron gate surrounding a community pool. The first thing he noticed was a swoon blue light undulating against the night cloud above the pool.

aIt was at that moment that it all came back and hit me at once, a Day said. aI was sick and tired of not being able to swim. The very next day I jumped into that very swimming pool. The goal was not to teach myself to swim but to prevent myself from drowning.a

He bought a day planner at a dollar store to track his progress. He learned not to drown by throwing himself into the deep aim over and over again and dog-paddling his style to the edge. He taught himself to swim watching others swim laps, then mimicking their motions and working out the kinks as he progressed. He was visiting the pond six or seven days a week, multiple times a day. The day planner became a diary of his relationship with the water. Swimming was becoming a kind of escape. He started reading volumes written by Navy SEALs. Then he took some of that military mindset to the pond. He would tilt his head back underwater, deliberately inviting the water to climb deep into his nostrils until it felt like it was burning his brain.

aI to benefit from deluge that burning feeling out, a Day said. aI became totally comfortable with being uncomfortablea in the water.

He practised holding his breath at work. Sometimes in the middle of the day, pool water would dislodge itself from inside Dayas head and pour out his nose. He suffered deep muscle pulls. But he felt clearer than ever. Swimming was helping him find himself. In a personal essay Day submitted as part of a task application for legal run, he wrote that the process of learning to swim as an adult has aprovided the basic ingredients or ga that I use when confronted with apparently difficult or impassable situationsa and ahas had a continuous and profound impact in many regions of my life.aA

His obsession soon grew too big for the pool. He tried scuba lessons.

Day’s diving life isn’t all run. Here he enjoys a pleasure dive off Monterey, California. Photos: Gregory Thomas

InfiniteA LearningA Curve

The tenets of the forensic dive teamanavigate blindly, search by feel and communicate via rope lineaare well outside the purview of recreational and even commercial scuba diving. The cornerstone of traditional diving is a principle teach as alook only, touch nothing.a You go under to observe nature; you leave no trace. The teamas chore is diametrically opposed to such an approach. You search by feel.

Not everyone was attained for it, says Jim Steele, Dayas dive instructor. aYou have to be comfortable for the purposes of the water when they turn the lights out.a

In 2008, after losing his task as a teacher, Day asked himself, aSteven, what would you do if “youve never” needed another dime? a The answer: aIad be an underwater archaeologist.a The rushing of diving and the prospect of exploring an foreigner surrounding, in spite of the hazard or perhaps because of it, induced the dive squad all the more appealing, Day says. aThe learning curve will never flatten out.a

Hereas an example. One means of acclimating to the black water surrounding is the acutting boxa workout. You start by stretching duct tape over your dive mask, so you canat ensure. Thereas a milk crate on the bottom of a 10 -foot( 3m) deep pond, with durations of various strings and cords tied and tangled to it. Your job is to find one loose end of each various kinds of cord, cut a length long enough to knot, then tie them in a daisy chain to your buoyancy compensator. You do this while wearing thick neoprene gloves. aWe do it until itas all just muscle memory, a McMurdie says. aWe want to make sure itas pure reflex.a

The exercise, in part, tests the ability of a diver to maintain focus for an extended period of time while deprived of his senses. After about 20 minutes crawling through black water, members say, concentration begins to blur and fade-out. One dive team member set it this route: aEverybodyas got an edge, and everyoneas edge is different.a

Day has now expend years developing on the bottom of the swimming pool to hone his edge. Heas practicing to be the teamas priority diver on emergency assignings. aI want to be at the tip of the spear, a he says.

Photos: Gregory Thomas

CrashA Course

To an average scuba diver, the idea of groping around on the bottom of a waterway in Oakland is somewhat alarming. But I figured Iad try it myself, dedicated what team members say about how nobodyanot even experienced scuba diversahas a clue about what their job is really like.

I met John Lathsbury, a member of Dayas dive team, at the Alameda Marina one morning last November for a crash course in forensic diving. Standing on a small dock only off the marina parking lot, we considered the water we were about to jump into: a gray-green concoction separating Oakland from Alameda.

aThey say thereas no bottom in the Alameda Estuaryathe water just gets thicker, a Lathsbury said.

Lathsbury and I reviewed line signals in the marina parking lot. One tug: Are you okay? One tug back: Iam okay. Three tugs: Search right. Four tugs: Search left. 3-3-3: Surface , now! Six tugs: Iam in trouble!

We jumped into the water. A diver friend of Lathsburyas knelt on the dock and clipped the rope to my vest before Lathsbury and I descended. As we sank, green water shut out the luminescent gray sky above, enveloping us in a swampy haze. It wasnat black water, but my visibility restricted to what was directly in front of my mask. I lay on my belly on the bottom, about 12 feet down, and attempted a circle pattern searchahunting for anything I could find. The idea is to explore the bottom, one centimeter at a time, with your fingertips.

Brushing a hand into the mucky sediment produced a small detonation of gray that didnat settle back down. It was like swimming in a paint can. My limbs moved as swiftly as they would in a swimming pool, but the fog of sediment made the water seem thick and impenetrable. My senses struggled to perceive depth, leaving my intellect oscillating between sensations of claustrophobia and infinity. Some of the divers say itas easier to just close your eyes, so I did.

Slowly, my brain redirected my senses to my hands, and my arms fanned out in front of me. My fingers wrap around something solid, and dislodged it. Was it a stone, a shell or some human artifact? I pulled it close to my mask to see it. Then closer. Then it was touching the lens of my mask but still somehow shrouded. Itas a bit unnerving to have working eyes that canat assure whatas in front of them. I defined it back down and crawled forward.

After about 15 minutes, I felt a set of 3-3-3 tugs on my vest: Time to surface. I came up disoriented, intending to face the dock but with my back to it instead. McMurdieas words were ricochetting around in my head: aAfter about 15 minutes, you start to lose it.a

aAsk him what the bottom terrain is like, a Dan McCormick orders Justin, the communications man wearing a radio headset. aIs it weedy? a

Justin radios the inquiry to the diver in the water, Dan Longnecker, then relays his response. aHe says, aThick vegetation, aa Justin says. Day jots it down on a clipboard. He is profiling divers in the water during tonightas exercise.

Photos: Gregory Thomas

A moment subsequently, Longneckeras line tender felt three quick successions of four tugsaone of the teamas emergency signals. The aim of the rope heas holding stretchings about 60 feet( 18 m) off the dock heas standing on and disappears below the surface of a dark pond in Pleasanton, where the team is developing. Tonight, divers are looking for the mock sub-machine gun McMurdie berated the team about at the meeting earlier that month. The muddied lakebed is a hazardous course of long grass and other obstructions, like stray petroleum drums, that can confuse a diver searching along the bottom.

The line tender announces emergency situations to the men on the dock, who immediately stop what theyare doing and regroup. Dayas estimation puts the diveras depth at about 12 feet( 3.5 m) and his breathing frequency at eight breaths per minute, judging by the intervals of bubbles that emerge on the wateras surface. Justin radios to Longnecker, the man in the water, who McMurdie calls aThe Magneta for his prowess situate guns. Longnecker says heas caught in the long grass and canat untangle his fins. Heas been in the water longer than usual, more than 20 minutes, and his air might be running low.

Scotty, who simply climbed out of the water from a diving, grabs his mask and hops back in to go after Longnecker. He kicks out on the surface about halfway then submerges. All eyes are on the water. Justin radios to Scott and Longnecker for a report, but no one is answeringajust short explodes of static. A minute passes. Then another. Then a place of pond in the area beyond the rope begins to bubble. Two heads pop up and begin a slow drift toward the dock. Hands reach out of the water as the diversa pull their masks off their faces and regs from their mouths. The silence all around us is violate by their laughter.

Day helps carry the divers out of the water and everyone trudges back to the parking lot, where a floodlight is presided over by an open trailer. The divers drop their gear on a plastic tarp and peel themselves out of their wetsuits. While theyare garmenting, Chad Noble, the acting superior officer, recounts the nightas workout. It turns out Longnecker faked his entanglement.

aIt was a test, a Chad announces. The team seems relieved at the news.

Wending out of the park in his Jeep, Day contemplates the impact of a year of feeling around underwater for firearms and dead bodies. It has changed his perception of the Bay Areaas waterways. aI should be considered how the contour of the bottom is shaped now, a he says. aI think, aWhatas under there? aa His stream of consciousness meanders into believes about diving in the dark.

aThe way it works when youare down there is your eyes try to fixate on something to get a point of reference, but thatas actually counterproductive, a he says. aYou have to consciously abandon all your natural tendencies and everything they teach you in scuba.a

aItas like taking a break. I have a bunch of fears but getting under the water, like, allows me to take that one big breath Iave been waiting for, a he says. aI believe I feel the most solace in the dark.aA

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