Case closed on boating mystery

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Father and son missing for two years are presumed dead, with no evidence of foul play

Father and son missing for two years are presumed dead, with no evidence of foul play

A judge has ruled that a father and son are presumed dead after going missing two years ago while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Their boat drifted around Florida and washed up on the state’s east coast.

Collier County circuit court Judge Jack Schoonover’s July 12 ruling in the deaths of Wayne Eddleman, 48, and his son Neil Alan Eddleman, 13, brings some closure for wife and mother Karen Eddleman, says her attorney, John Holloway of Naples, Fla. He says it also clears the way for her to file insurance claims and litigation on behalf of her son’s estate.

The 24-foot Hydra-Sports, What’s Left, disappeared off Florida’s Gulf Coast in October 2003 and washed ashore at Cape Canaveral 17 days later. The decomposed body of Gary Lee Lisk, 61-year-old owner and skipper of What’s Left, was trapped below in the capsized boat, but Neil Eddleman and his son were missing. An exhaustive search by the Coast Guard and a flotilla of private vessels came up empty-handed.

The three had set out to fish on the Baja California, a freighter sunk by a German U-boat in 129 feet of water, 66 miles southwest of Naples. Judging from the considerable damage to What’s Left, the squalls forecast on the eve of the trio’s departure, the captain’s death, and the boat’s 500-mile odyssey around the Florida peninsula, “I just don’t think there’s any hope that anyone lived,” says Karen Eddleman’s trial attorney, David Garber.

Schoonover evidently thought likewise. The judge’s ruling enables the Florida Department of Health to issue a “presumptive death certificate” for the father and son, which though conclusive for now can be rebutted if evidence comes to light in the future that either of the Eddlemans is still alive, says Garber.

Naples police found no evidence of foul play in the Eddlemans’ disappearance. A Brevard County medical examiner’s autopsy failed to determine why Lisk died because his body was so badly decomposed, but the examiner did find that Lisk’s back was broken — possibly from banging around inside the cabin after he had died.

Police theorize that What’s Left encountered squalls and 6- to 8-foot seas, capsized — probably within 12 hours of leaving Naples — then drifted 500 miles. But they never determined exactly why it capsized. Garber says he’s got his own ideas about what happened. The boat’s fiberglass hull was found badly damaged, and an anchor and stern lines were parted as if they had been subjected to terrific stress. He thinks the boat may have been tied to a communications tower or channel marker when it capsized, throwing the Eddlemans overboard and perhaps breaking Lisk’s back as the lines snapped taut, catching him in a pincer against the boat before they broke.

Why the boat capsized will figure in any litigation that Karen Eddelman brings. Holloway says she may pursue a wrongful death and negligence suit against Lisk and her husband’s estate on behalf of her son in light of the men’s decision to go out fishing despite a poor weather forecast.

“The only party that we know didn’t act negligently was the child because [as a child] he can’t act negligently,” says Holloway.