Wednesday, May 5, 2004
It was a welcome day off for Chris Henkle, who had a long-standing arrangement to go fishing with his friend Dee Connors. Early May is the start of the spring trophy fishing season in the Chesapeake Bay, with rock fish, striped bass and perch, and the burly Virginia Beach fireman rose at the crack of dawn.
At 5:45 a.m. he arrived at Connors’ house, finding him already waiting outside with his young son Sam and daughter Claire, excited to be going on their first fishing trip. After loading Connors’ twenty-one-foot fishing boat on a trailer, they made the short drive to the City Marina by Vista Circle.
But as they launched the small boat into the choppy waters, it started raining.
“It wasn’t as nice as we hoped for,” remembered Henkle. “The seas were kicking up a little bit, the wind was blowing and it was kinda chilly.”
Around 7:30 a.m., Henkle took the wheel, heading out towards the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, linking Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore of Virginia—the Chesapeake Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
Acclaimed as one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world, the Bridge-Tunnel is composed of twelve miles of elevated roadway, two bridges, two mile-long tunnels and four artificial islands. It shaves 95 miles off the journey north from Virginia Beach to Delaware and beyond.
As the busy rush hour traffic hummed 75 feet above, Henkle followed the Bridge-Tunnel on the Chesapeake Bay side. By now it was raining hard and rough-going, as they passed the first island, where the bridge dramatically plunges into a mile-long tunnel, connecting to the next bridge at Island 2.
Eventually the wind dropped and the waters became calmer, as they sailed past Islands 3 and 4 to Fisherman Island, a private wildlife refuge at the tip of the Eastern Shore.
“We dropped anchor,” remembered Henkle. “Fishing wasn’t real good that day, but we caught a couple of little mud sharks, some little spot and flounder. The kids were having a blast.”
By 10:00 a.m. the rain had stopped and it was warming up, so they turned back towards the four artificial islands, where the fishing was good.
As they passed Island 4, the two men were talking at the back of the boat, while 12-year-old Sam and his little sister played up front.
“Hey,” said Connors suddenly. “You just passed a suitcase floating in the water. Turn around. Let’s check it out.”
So Henkle cut off the engine and turned around, where a medium-sized dark green suitcase was gently bobbing in the water. As he pulled alongside it, Connors and his son grabbed the expandable handle to pull it aboard. But it was too heavy.
Then Henkle came over and together they finally hauled it onboard.
“It’s pirates’ treasure,” screamed Sam excitedly, unzipping the unlocked suitcase, which opened easily. Then the little boy folded back the soft cover to discover its contents, securely wrapped in thick black plastic trash bags.
“I was nervous and looking around,” said Henkle. “Did we pick up something we shouldn’t have? Is whoever dropped it still here to make sure it sunk?”
But before Henkle could tell him to zip it back up, Sam ripped open the soaking plastic bags, revealing two pale hairy legs, severed from the knees down.
The little boy screamed, recoiling in horror as Henkle pulled him to the side of the boat. For several minutes they all just stared at the human legs without saying a word, as the terrible realization of what they had found dawned on them.
“I knew it was foul play,” said Henkle. “Then I really started looking over my shoulder. Those legs looked very, very fresh. They didn’t have an odor.”
After closing the bag, he nervously dialed 911 on his cell phone. Although they were far closer to the Eastern Shore, the Virginia Beach police dispatcher answered.
“She thought I was kidding,” he said. “I said, ‘No. No. No. I need someone to come here and pick this thing up.’”
The dispatcher told him to go to Island 4, where the Bridge-Tunnel police would meet him.
Blood was leaking out of the suitcase, so the two men placed it at the back of the boat. Then they headed towards Island 4.
When, after half an hour of circling it, there was still no sign of police, Henkle dialed 911 again. The dispatcher apologized for the delay, telling them to proceed to Island 2, promising that a police boat was already on its way.
When the same thing happened at Island 2, Henkle became angry.
“It was more than an hour after we had found the case,” he remembered, “and I’m really not happy. The boy was traumatized. I told him, ‘There’s no reason to get upset and nothing in there is going to hurt you. It’s something really bad, and you don’t need to worry about it.’”
Finally, Henkle dialed 911 a third time, announcing that they were returning to the Virginia Beach marina.
“There was starting to be a mess,” said Henkle. “The deck of the boat had turned pink. Blood was seeping out and I was worried.”
It was around noon, about two hours after they had found the suitcase, as they approached the Lesner Bridge, that a Virginia Beach Special Operations Marine Patrol police boat came alongside. Then Henkle and Connors picked up the suitcase and threw it onto the police boat, telling the two officers to look inside.
Copyright © 2008 by John Glatt.