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Criminal Justice Update

Underwater Evidence Finders: Forensic dive team helps ATF with firearms case


Persistence often pays off for the BCI Forensic Dive Team as it did recently when a second diligent search of a Champaign County lake turned up potential evidence in a gun store robbery case.

Gary Wilgus, who leads the team primarily made up of agents and others from the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, was optimistic going into the operation at Kaiser Lake but knew there was a chance the divers would have to make a third trip to look for the disassembled firearm reportedly tossed in the 396-acre lake by suspects in the 2016 heist.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requested the dive team’s assistance after a witness provided details about the suspects’ efforts to hide their involvement in the crime by getting rid of the evidence.

Wilgus, a BCI special agent supervisor, laid out the search parameters based on the witness’ statement and a study by a team at the Ohio Attorney General’s Center for the Future of Forensic Science at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). The study looked at the distance a firearm would travel if thrown into the water.

At the lake, Wilgus and his team set up a jackstay, a rope with an anchor on each end, to guide divers as they search in tandem in a line from one end to the other. When the two reach the end, they advance the line by lifting the anchor and moving it a few feet before turning around and taking another sweep. 

They repeat the process until the search area is covered.

As the first two divers — Stephen Schumaker, deputy attorney general for law enforcement, and Pat Willoughby, an investigator for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, who is assigned to the team — entered the water, they found that water lilies were creating an entanglement hazard in the zero visibility water. 

“If you miss it by 3 inches, you might as well have missed it by 3 miles,” Wilgus said.

To overcome the visibility issue, the divers used handheld metal detectors. After about an hour of searching on the western shoreline, the team decided to try a section along the southern shoreline. Wilgus reset the jackstay and Willoughby and Dan Boerner, a BCI special agent, entered the water to start the process again.

Soon Boerner’s metal detector went off and he came up with the receiver to a Saiga 12-gauge shotgun. He placed an anchor marker to indicate where the item was found and brought the piece to shore for examination. Diver David Hornyak, a BCI special agent who was serving as the safety diver, measured the distance from the shoreline to the marker. 

Then, the divers resumed their search. Willoughby soon discovered a gun’s bolt, which was also recorded and added to the evidence to be turned over to the ATF.

“The forensic dive team is available to offer free assistance to any Ohio law enforcement agency in the recovery of underwater criminal evidence,” Wilgus said.

For more information, or to ask for dive team assistance, call 855-BCI-OHIO (855-224-6446).