CRUZ BAY — A popular island resident and Westin Resort security guard known to free dive and spearfish in the waters off Contant Point was found drowned off the west side of the entrance to Great Cruz Bay early Wednesday evening, June 17.
In conflicting reports from federal and territorial officials, U.S. Coast Guard and V.I. Police Department authorities apparently were unable to recover the weighted body of Chris Bettencourt from the 20-foot deep water for about 12 hours — about 10 hours after a U.S. Coast Guard high speed response boat and two USCG helicopters responded to the scene and stayed on station for most of the night.
When the young man’s body, weighted down by a diver’s weight belt, was finally recovered from 20 feet of water by a friend of the victim on Thursday morning, there were questions raised about a possible collision with a boat at the entrance to the busy residential bay having resulted in a “gash” to the victim’s head and his “cracked facemask,” reported to St. John Tradewinds by several unofficial sources.
Possibly Struck by Small Boat?
There were multiple reliable reports to St. John Tradewinds that Bettencourt appeared to have been struck by a passing small boat while surfacing in the busy waters and may have drowned when dragged unconscious to the bottom in approximately 20 feet of water by his diver’s weight belt.
(One experienced mariner and free diver, who is also very familiar with the heavy boat traffic in that area, opined that repeated free diving can result in often fatal underwater blackouts and that the damage to the mask and the diver’s head could have been caused by Bettencourt’s weighted body being pushed against rocks on the seabed during the 12 hours it took for recovery.)
Legal Jurisdiction Question?
The incident raised questions about the emergency marine response in St. John waters as evidenced by the delays in the recovery of Bettencourt’s body and conflicting timelines provided by federal and territorial authorities — questions apparently also arose concerning legal jurisdiction over the “crime scene,” which could complicate any investigation into the questions raised at the scene about circumstances of the death.
The body of the experienced diver subsequently was retrieved from about 20 feet of water around daybreak Thursday by a personal friend of Bettencourt who also was a member of St. John Rescue and apparently had been on the scene overnight waiting for permission from authorities to retrieve his friend’s body.
Ironically, the timing of the recovery coincided somewhat with the regular shift change at the VIPD Leander Jurgen Command in Cruz Bay.
Differing USCG and VIPD Timelines
There were significant discrepancies in the official reports of the rescue and recovery efforts from federal and territorial authorities — amid reports from unofficial sources of a jurisdictional dispute over control of the “crime scene” — which raised questions about any investigation of a possible boating accident.
The initial call came in to the U.S. Coast Guard St. Thomas detachment on Wednesday evening at 6:40 p.m., according to a USCG spokesperson at Sector San Juan.
The USCG received a report of caller from St. John to 911 who said they had been watching a spear fisherman operate from a kayak and had not seen him come back to his small boat, Lt. Andrew Simpson of Sector San Juan told St. John Tradewinds on June 19.
“They couldn’t see him any longer and they called 911 and the Coast Guard was notified,” according to Lt. Simpson. The initial call “to investigate the kayak to see if the person was okay” came through 911,” he reiterated.
When a U.S. Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter in the area responded soon after the initial call and found the diver’s kayak and “found the person was not there,” the USCG “started search and rescue,” according to Lt. Simpson.
The USCG sent a “new helicopter with rescue swimmer” to the scene, the USCG officer reported.
“Coast Guard (rescue swimmer response) doesn’t have diver capability,” Lt. Simpson proffered.
USCG on Scene at 8:50 p.m.
A USCG 33-foot, “small boat” from the St. Thomas detachment was underway at 8:20 p.m. and was “on scene” at 8:50 p.m., according to Lt. Simpson.
“Friends of the missing kayaker searched into the night,” he added. “They found the body in about 20 feet of water at about 11:30 p.m.”
St. John Tradewinds received a text from a resident at 1:47 a.m. Thursday morning reporting that a helicopter had been operating over the southwest shore since about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night.
“The helicopter was on scene at least until past midnight,” according to Lt. Simpson. “The 33-footer (response boat) from St. Thomas remained on scene.”
There was no official USCG involvement in the recovery of Bettencourt’s body, according to the USCG officer.
VIPD Timeline Different, Limited
The official V.I. Police Department press release on the marine death issued Friday afternoon, June 19, at 3:15 p.m. differed from the Coast Guard report and left more questions unanswered than it answered and, in fact, raised more questions:
“At roughly 11:57 p.m. on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 patrol units were dispatched to the Westin Resort in reference to a drowning,” the V.I. Police Department said in an electronic press release Friday afternoon, June 19. “The victim, Chris Bettencourt an employee of the resort had been known to go kayaking frequently and had taken to the sea that afternoon.”
“A co-worker of the deceased told police that he received a call from a National Park Ranger at 11:40 p.m. stating that the victim’s kayak had been located, with no sign of the deceased,” the VIPD reported. “The Coast Guard was contacted for assistance, located the body and made several attempts to retrieve it to no avail.”
“The Coast Guard resumed their efforts to retrieve the body on the morning of Thursday, June 18th and by 9:00 a.m.; the body of the victim had been retrieved, lifted and transported to the National Park Dock,” the VIPD electronic press release concluded without elaboration. “The incident is under continued investigation.”