What happened to 3 Canadians?
by Geoffrey Stevens
SUN TIMES OF CANADA
Fort Myers, Fla.
THIS is a mystery story.
It begins on Nov. 4, 1994. On that date, three young Canadian men, all 25 and all from Mississauga, Ont., joined a fourth Canadian, Jeff Wandich, whose parents have a place on Marco Island, south of Naples, for a day of fishing and diving in the Gulf of Mexico.
They set out from Marco Island in a 25 -foot boat belonging to Wandich, heading for the wreck of the Baja California, a freighter that was sunk by a German U-boat in 1942 in 129 feet of water about 60 miles southwest of Marco.
The four Canadians apparently reached the wreck in early afternoon. The weather was starting to break up, with winds of 15 to 20 knots and waves of four to six feet buffeting Wandich’s boat. They decided to make one quick dive to the wreck, then head back to Marco Island before the weather got too bad.
That much is known - or is thought to be known.
When the four men did not return, they were reported overdue. The U.S. Coast Guard began to search.
Thirty-six hours after they would have been diving to the Baja California, Wandich was found clinging to a signal tower in the Gulf of Mexico, about four miles from the site.
No trace was found of Dave Madott, Omar Shearer or Kent Munro.
All three were good swimmers. All were wearing wetsuits and buoyancy compensators - flotation devices that would keep them afloat in the worst weather. The water temperature was a warm 77 degrees. They could have survived for days. If they had died of exposure, their bodies would have floated.
The shark population in the area has been depleted and those that are left are not, for the most part, mammal-eaters. But even if the three men were attacked by sharks, there would be remains and the buoyancy compensators to be found. The current would have carried them southwest, then either east around the tip of Florida or west away from the Florida peninsula.
But no sign was found of Madott, Shearer and Munro. No bodies, no remains, no debris.
As baffled as everyone else, the coast guard mounted one of the most massive searches ever conducted in the region. Using boats, aircraft and helicopters with state-of-the-art infrared technology, the coast guard scoured 23,000 square miles of sea over the course of six days before calling off the search. When the coast guard gave up, the men’s families carried on, spending tens of thousands of dollars to hire boats, planes, guides, divers, private detectives and even psychics. The Federal Bureau of Investigation got into the act.
But nothing was ever found of Madott, Shearer or Munro.
What happened to the three friends from Canada?
All the families and the authorities have to go on is the account given by the survivor, Jeff Wandich, a property manager from Toronto.
As Wandich tells it, the four reached the site of the Baja California wreck where they anchored their boat, the Sea Esta. Violating one of the cardinal rules of diving, they left the boat untended. They split in pairs - Wandich with Madott, Shearer with Munro - and headed down to the wreck. At the 30-foot depth, Munro signalled that he was having trouble equalizing the pressure in his ears. He and Shearer returned to the surface while Madott and Wandich continued down to the wreck, remaining there for perhaps 15 minutes.
Munro and Shearer, meanwhile, reached the surface and hoisted themselves into the Sea Esta, only to find it was taking on water over the transom. Suddenly the boat began to tip sideways and Munro and Shearer jumped out. By the time Wandich and Madott returned to the surface, the boat was stern-down with only about three feet of bow sticking out of the water.
The four hung to the anchor rope for four hours before the boat sank.
They decided they had no choice but to try to swim about four miles to the signal tower, which had a beacon that flashed brightly every few seconds. They set off together, but Wandich says he became frightened - so frightened that he moved off a short distance from the others while he regained his composure. When he tried to rejoin his three friends, he could not find them. “I wasn’t far away from them, maybe 10 feet, two waves away, and then I took a look to my left and ... I didn’t see them anymore,” Wandich says. “They were gone.”
Struggling into the teeth of the 20 knot wind, Wandich swam toward the signal tower. It took four hours before he reached it and pulled himself out of the waves to await rescue.
There is no reason not to accept Wandich’s account of the tragic events of Nov. 4,1994. The police have probed him closely. He has passed a polygraph test. A private salvager went to the wreck site a few days after the tragedy and found the Sea Esta exactly where Wandich said it would be - lying on top of the Baja California. The salvager brought the Sea Esta to port; it showed no evidence of foul play.
Divers hired by Dave Madott’s father, Bill, an IBM Canada executive based in Markham, Ont., found fishing rods, air tanks and other paraphernalia on the bottom, just where they should have been from Wandich’s description of events.
Floating debris from the Sea Esta was located 21 miles southwest of the wreck site, just where searchers expected to find it. But no trace, no hint, was found there - or anywhere - of Dave Madott, Omar Shearer and Kent Munro.
Bill Madott is a determined, don’t-let-go kind of man - just the sort of terrier any family would want orchestrating the search and keeping pressure on the authorities if one of it’s children disappeared mysteriously. He has been back and forth repeatedly since November 1994, organizing search efforts that were made possible by a fund started by the missing men’s employers. The fund grew to $95,000, of which $10,000 remains.
Constantly seeking to bring his search to a wider audience, Madott arranged for the publication of a book, Vanished in the Gulf, by Toronto Sun reporter Joe Warmington. And everywhere he goes, Bill Madott distributes leaflets in which the families offer a reward of $300,000 (US) for information leading to the safe return of the three men, or $45,000 for the recovery of their remains. The leaflets bear photos of the three as they were in 1994 and, courtesy of the Metropolitan Toronto police, computer-enhanced likenesses of how they would appear today with longer hair and beards.
But still nothing, not a word, not a sighting.
Bill Madott accepts Jeff Wandich’s account, but he feels someone is holding something back.
“I think one of three things happened,” Madott said in an interview with The Sun Times.
“one, we missed them somehow. Two, someone picked them up. Three, they were never there.”
He finds it hard to credit the first scenario. The Coast Guard and private searches were so intense and so thorough that if there were anything to find, something would have been found.
Madott also has trouble with the third scenario - that the three missing men were never at the wreck of the Baja California. This scenario implies that the Canadians got mixed up, knowingly or unknowingly, in drug smuggling or some other illegal activity and were murdered to prevent them from talking. In this scenario, the diving trip to the Baja California would be an elaborate cover story to enable the guilty to escape detection.
But there is no suggestion that any of the three was ever involved in illicit activity. Like the other parents, Bill Madott believes his son was clean. “But if I’m wrong, I’ll have to live with it. Once I know what really happened to Dave, I can handle the rest.”
He leans to the second scenario. He thinks that the Sea Esta went down as Wandich described it. He thinks the young men tried to swim to the signal tower and that Madott, Shearer and Munro became separated from Wandich pretty much as Wandich said they did. But he suspects that his son, Omar Shearer and Kent Munro were picked up by a boat operated by criminals - smugglers, perhaps, of drugs, arms or illegal immigrants - who were surprised in their criminal act when the three Canadians swam or floated onto the scene.
To rid themselves of witnesses, the criminals either murdered the three men and buried their bodies ashore somewhere - or they kidnapped them and are holding them as prisoners, hostages or slaves in Central or South America.
For Bill Madott and the other parents, after 15 anguished months, a ransom call in the middle of the night would be cause for relief and celebration.
Anyone with information about Dave Madott, Omar Shearer or Kent Munro is asked to contact Bill Madott at P.O. Box 334, Mississauga “A”, Mississauga, Ont. L5A 3A1. Joe Warmington’s book Vanished in the Gulf, published by Battle Books of Toronto, is available at bookstores in Canada and Florida.
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