Under the Bridge
PROLOGUE Carefully Floated
You can’t see anything. In the dark waters of a saltwater inlet known as the Gorge, Sergeant Bob Wall was underwater, searching for the body of a girl. Though he had been a member of the elite Dive Unit for twelve years and was properly and fully equipped with full scuba gear, insulated underwear, neoprene gloves, a buoyancy compensator, and a twenty-five-pound air tank on his back, his search for the girl was frustrating and difficult because underwater, everything was so dark. His eyes were open as he moved forward, yet he could see only blackness. He would have to look for the girl by feeling alone, feeling and touching the darkness that surrounded him, a cold, black depth below the surface of the world.
Concealed in his black wet suit, Bob Wall moved slowly, twelve inches at a time, while the other men held the rope taut and firm. Under water, he touched the detritus of suburbia. Bicycles, so many bikes. He touched beer bottles and rusted nails and shopping
carts. “There’s so much junk in the Gorge,” the men of the Dive Unit say; they speak of the water as if it is their enemy. “The visibility’s awful. The water’s crap.” You can’t see anything.
When you’re searching, you like to sink to the bottom, the men say.
You have to use your buoyancy compensator, make yourself “negatively buoyant,” so you’re almost prone on the bottom. It looks as if you’re doing a push-up. You’re as far down as you could possibly be.
Blind and feeling everything, Bob Wall touched the sand with a single hand. His other hand held tight to the rope. Two members of the Dive Unit sank with him, keeping the rope as taut as they possibly could, holding on with both hands, holding tight.
The girl who was missing was fourteen years old.
The girl, she’d been missing for over a week.
If the terrible rumor were true, she would have sunk to the bottom of the Gorge by now. Sergeant Rick “Gos” Gosling was glad he was holding the line and not the one doing the physical search. The “anticipation of finding a body is so stressful,” he explains. “You always have that nightmare of finding the face looming up against you, like that scene in Jaws.” You’d be pushing yourself against the dark water and knowing you might see a face, lifeless and still. You’d come up against the horror of death, right there, literally, before your eyes. Gos remembered the time he’d found an old woman trapped in her sunken Chevrolet. Her eyes met his; the old lady, she looked right at him and he jumped back, feeling nausea and sadness. The old lady’s eyes were blue
and her mouth was open, as if she’d died in the midst of a roar or a song.
Sometimes under water, there would be these strange moments of beauty, a light that would crack through the blackness and the sandstorms. In the darkness, the men say, sometimes, “You get swirls, a pale green, a glimmer.”
It was a strange occupation—looking for something you didn’t really want to find. And on this pale, blurry day in November, the men really didn’t want to find the fourteen-year-old girl because it would mean the rumors of murder were true. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Gos said when he heard about who was alleged to have killed the girl. His partners scoffed as well, for the story of her supposed killers seemed such an absurd and impossible tale.
The absence in the water seemed to confirm their disbelief.
If you asked the men why they didn’t believe the story, they would answer quite logically. This was Victoria, British Columbia, a small island in the Pacific Northwest famed for it’s natural beauty and easygoing lifestyle. Young girls did not get murdered in Victoria. Girls in this town, they grew up unharmed. They shopped at Hillside Mall, attended schools named after politicians and war heroes. Girls lived safely on streets named after trees and explorers. Girls may have been murdered in the closest big cities of Vancouver and Seattle; in these cities murders were common and no one
would be surprised to hear the story of a young girl brutally murdered. But girls did not die young here on this idyllic island, a sheltered paradise. Gos never before had been asked to investigate the murder of a young girl.
Bob Wall reached the end of the line. Still nothing. The girl was supposed to have been killed right on the sandy shore, near the old white schoolhouse, now covered by lurid yellow crime scene tape.
Gos wished he could look at the sun, get a sense of the time of day. He did not know it was 11:15. He knew only that they’d been underwater for almost an hour. He wanted to lift the seaweed, which was clammy and cold against his cheek, but to remove his hands from the rope would cause the line to flail, cause his partner to drift off his path.
Suddenly, this: a tug on the rope. One tug, then another, then a third. Three tugs was the code for discovery.
All three men rose and left the dark below.
In the eelgrass, Bob Wall had seen something, a pale white strip of fabric. As he moved closer, he reached for the fabric, retrieving it from the rough stalks tinged with a color like ivory. His hands reached in; they found the fabric was a pair of girl’s underwear. “Panties,” he would later write in the Dive Unit Operation Log, “were retrieved from the eelgrass.”
Using a camera floated out to him, Bob Wall photographed the underwear. He then marked the spot with a wooden stick known as a pelican marker. He kicked back to shore and placed the underwear inside a sterile Ziploc bag. Wall flinched slightly as water fell
from the bag and as he touched the wet fabric and saw the label, so ordinary and familiar: Fruit of the Loom.
Several minutes later, at 11:29, Bob Wall made a second discovery.
The men holding the rope felt a sudden, sharp pull and thought together and silently, we found her. The young missing girl. She would be there, on the bottom of the Gorge.
But when Bob Wall rose, his left hand held something smaller than a body. In his hands, he held only a pair of blue jeans. The jeans were covered in silt as gray as ash.
Bob Wall photographed the jeans, stuck the pelican marker in, placed the jeans in the plastic bag, sealed the bag, returned to the marker, and went down again.
“We knew we were close now,” Gos recalls. “We were expecting to find the whole package,” Gos says. “We’ve got the clothing. She should be right there. That really did confuse us.”
The men moved along westward more slowly, feeling every inch of the sand and the black water.
The line search continued until they had covered every inch of their planned path. The area under the bridge was still to be searched, but this search would require a new plan, for there were pillars to be navigated and the route was not as clear.
The men surfaced, kicking back toward the small Zodiac boat. They climbed aboard, lifted their goggles, and wiped seaweed away. A light mist fell on the surface of the water, and the air smelled like autumn bonfires. Near the schoolhouse, reporters, photographers, and
onlookers gathered, all drawn to the scene by the obvious presence of something major going on. The men in black, the yellow crime scene tape, and this unusual site as well: in the sky, a red Coast Guard helicopter hovered over the Gorge.
The Dive Unit were slightly cynical about the presence of the helicopter. The Coast Guard was not trained to deal with evidence, and besides, what could you really see when you were so far above? To really find anything, you had to dive down.
The men drank coffee.
“We will do this,” they said. “We will find her.”
At 12:22, static came over Gosling’s radio. The men shivered and drank their coffee. On the radio, a distraught voice said: “We’ve got something.”
The vagueness, the Dive Unit knew, was meant to deter journalists. On the radio, searchers never say they’ve found a body. The men knew the code. And then the helicopter above them, on the other side of the Gorge, near lavish and proud homes, the helicopter suddenly started to descend.
When they received the oblique message, the four men jumped into their van without bothering to take off their wet suits. They drove quickly through the quiet streets of a suburb named View Royal, past homes still decorated with Halloween images of ghosts and falling spiders and lanky goblins. On reaching the home at 2814 Murray Street, they parked the van crookedly and ran past the stone pillars and scarlet foliage and through the backyard down toward the silver water. “It was a big frenzy there,” Gosling recalls.
“Everybody converged. The coroner, some journalists, investigators, there was everybody.”
And there was the girl, who’d been found not by the men underwater but by the men up above.
She was floating in the reeds, her body hidden by the stalks, which were dry and close to the color of cinnamon. Her long, black hair floated like a velvet path, and the naked part of her body was covered by the cold rise of water.
In the water, the girl was floating while the men stood upright. They surrounded her in a circle, and the scene might have seemed like a baptism in reverse, a girl lifted from the water and placed on a gurney, her body in a black T-shirt instead of a white dress.
The body was carefully floated to the wharf by the men of the Dive Unit. Carefully floated was the term Bob Wall would choose for his police report. Carefully floated. The phrase, like the gesture, was poetic and kind, an act that might have been the only poetry and kindness shown to the murdered girl.
The men lifted her out of the Gorge, away from the spot of her secret grave.