KEY WEST, Fla. – It was a gruesome discovery three South Florida men won’t soon forget.
Marcus Swinney, 56, David Marks, 49, and Lance Luvish, 59, decided to hit the water Sunday in search of dolphin fish near Islamorada’s Alligator Reef. What they ended up finding instead was a human head.
The men spotted what looked like a lobster trap buoy in about 125 feet of water. As it bobbed, Swinney circled in their 25-foot, rented Wellcraft. But something was not quite right.
“We all looked at each other and said, “Hmmmm,”‘ Marks recalled.
“It was kind of a beige color,” said Swinney.
By the second pass, a wave of alarm had swept over the fishing party.
One of the men said, “Did that look like what I thought it was?” Swinney recalled. “I said, “Yeah.”‘
As they moved in, Swinney extended his hand and turned the object over in the water.
“There was a face looking right at us,” said Marks.
“It had a full set of teeth and about eight vertebrae below the neckline,” Swinney said. The rest of the body was nowhere in sight. The former Florida Highway Patrol auxiliarist wasted no time.
“Marc just grabbed the rib and pulled it right in the back of the boat,” Marks said.
The men radioed the Coast Guard and dialed 911, and for the next few minutes, sat on the boat and just stared. They sought comfort the only way they could.
“We started drinking a few beers,” Swinney said.
When sheriff’s deputies arrived, they had to supply something to stash the head in.
“We transferred it into a bucket they gave us,” Swinney said.
The men then decided it was time to call it a day and motored back to a local marina.
For investigators, the challenge has only begun as they try to identify who the head belongs to. They don’t have a lot to work with. Dental and DNA records aren’t much assistance if you don’t have something to compare them to.
The head still has some flesh and part of an ear. The eyes are gone. Four ribs, a jaw, and some vertebrae remain. An examination by a Monroe County medical examiner on Monday revealed the remains – likely from a man – have shark bite marks but don’t seem to show any evidence of inflicted trauma before death.
On Tuesday, the head is slated to be shipped to the University of Florida’s Pound Human Identification Lab, where forensic anthropologists will try to discern more details about its origin, age and race.
“In this type of case, it’s a process that’s going to take time. We need that estimation of the general physical characteristics of the person,” said Dr. Michael Hunter, Monroe’s chief medical examiner.
It’s quite possible the head could belong to a Cuban migrant, who perished trying to reach Florida. Hunter estimates the head had been in the water for as long as a week.