FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Ghostly, sunken cars lie in South Florida’s canals and lakes, hiding lost lives — sometimes for decades.
Broward Sheriff’s detectives are investigating two recent cases of dead people recovered from submerged cars in Deerfield Beach: One on a Thursday night from a waterway in Century Village and another in August from a lake along Powerline Road.
While such crashes are rare, they occur most often during clear days on dry, rural roads, records show. Between 2011 and 2016, there were 168 water-related deaths from crashes in the state, according to a South Florida Sun Sentinel analysis of Florida Department of Transportation data. Bad drivers and alcohol were factors in about a quarter of the cases.
Of those fatalities in waterways, 29 happened in Palm Beach County, 25 in Broward County and eight in Miami-Dade County.
Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Alexander Beer, the agency’s chief diver, says when the Everglades are factored in, there are lots of watery places for someone to vanish.
“I see water and all I think is, when people want to hide something or dispose of something or throw something away they don’t want anybody else to find, it goes in the water,” Beer said. “There are enough canals in the area and they chuck it and they assume that nobody is ever going to look in there. But we do.”
Munawar Toha found that out after his wife, Surya Sari-Prihatin, disappeared in 2010. The same day he went on television to plead with the mother of his two children to come home, Coral Springs police were pulling the couple’s car, with her body inside, from a lake next to Toha’s workplace in a Pompano Beach industrial park.
Toha, now 71, is in Florida City, serving a life sentence in state prison after being convicted of the premeditated murder of his wife. He also received a 30-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder after trying to hire a hit man to kill four witnesses in the case.
Evidence in the murder trial included a video from the industrial park that showed Toha guiding the car into the lake, near 4100 North Powerline Road.
The Sheriff’s Office and the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office is studying DNA and other clues to identify the human remains found in that sedan on Aug. 26. The car was pulled from a Deerfield Beach lake that is on the west side of 1500 S. Powerline Road, north of Sample Road.
The Sheriff’s Office began a second water crash death investigation in Deerfield Beach, when a resident of Century Village reported seeing part of a submerged car poking above the surface of a lake in the community. From a Toyota Corolla, deputies and divers recovered a woman’s body. The lake is near the Upminster K building and 424 S. Century Blvd., a spokeswoman said. The victim’s name and how she died were not immediately released.
Beer leads BSO’s 19 divers and has searched Broward County waterways for a decade.
He was on the team that dived in a canal along State Road 84 in Sunrise, where what was left of an orange Dodge sedan held the remains of young sweethearts Harry Wade Atchison III, 19, and Dana Null, 15, who disappeared in 1978.
They had attended a concert at the since demolished Hollywood Sportatorium, saw relatives in Davie and then the Dodge went into the water near Northwest 136th Avenue, where an Ikea store was built decades later.
“That was a fluke (that it was found),” Beer said. “A dredge hooked onto it, we pulled it up, found a VIN number and it came back to the cold case. We recovered the remains that were confirmed to be the teenagers missing 39 years ago.”
He said back then, State Road 84 was a two-lane road that ran along a canal ditch. The medical examiner’s office ruled the deaths were accidental and probable drownings.
When the Dodge was found in 2015, relatives said it was “bittersweet” to have an answer to their families’ unsolved mystery after so many decades. But it was sorrowful, too, to think their loved ones may have drowned.
In the days before Hurricane Irma arrived last September and the water level of the Boca Rio canal was lowered in advance of the storm, it surrendered a Toyota RAV4 SUV.
Inside were the remains of Loraine Pino, 47, of Boca Raton, who once lived near the canal. Five other vehicles were also discovered in the water that day.
Pino was a married grandmother who fed the poor and raised money for charitable causes. She had disappeared Dec. 19, 2016. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed her identity with DNA.
In 2017, the Broward Sheriff’s Dive Rescue Team recovered 23 vehicles from canals and lakes and took 19 cars out of waterways so far this year. Most did not contain human remains.
Divers may have to work in water 40 feet deep with zero visibility and three feet of bottom muck to search through, in places that water moccasins and alligators call home.
Fort Lauderdale, Miramar and Pembroke Pines police departments have dive teams, too, as do area fire departments.
Davie police estimate that each year they pull about 15 cars from waterways in town and in Southwest Ranches, where they also patrol. Boca Raton police divers pulled five vehicles from waterways in 2017 and two so far this year.
Davie Police Lt. Christopher Chastain said, “Some of the seaweed is so thick, (divers) come out and look like a swamp monster. There is nothing pretty about this at all if you’re searching for a body and all of a sudden you see it, face to face. It’s an interesting job, that’s for certain.”
To test their dexterity while underwater and hampered by their diving gear, Davie officers recently practiced carving cantaloupes without being able to see their hands.
Not all the recovered wrecks are from crashes; some were stolen or the result of accidents.
Brett Holcombe, of Westway Towing, said his drivers are routinely called to boat ramps when drivers don’t know what they’re doing and their trucks follow their vessels into the water.
“Half don’t pay attention to ramps that can be slippery from algae and once they get too far, it’s the point of no return,” Holcombe said. “Alcohol can play a part in it.”
He estimated his company pulls 15 to 20 vehicles from water each month.
“We never find just one,” Holcombe said.
Beer says as safety measures like guardrails are installed along canals, lakes and ponds, there may be fewer cars ending up in them.
“A rough guess is there are less than 50 cars sitting in Broward County waterways,” Beer said.
But that number is not a set figure, because things are dumped or crash into the water every day. “And there are probably areas that are inaccessible by boat to search with sonar,” Beer said. “Or that you would think there was no physical way to remove it, because development happened around the area.”
Along a one-way road in Miramar after midnight two years ago, a resident saw the eerie sight of lights beaming up from a canal.
Inside the car that sank near the 3400 block of Southwest 132nd Avenue were the bodies of two men, Alfredo Rodriguez, 36, and Luis Rodriguez Vidal, 43, who both lived in the city.
Police don’t know if the car drove into the canal or backed in to the waterway that did not have a guardrail.
“Our officers dove in and attempted to rescue the men, but it was too late,” Miramar Police spokeswoman Tania Rues said.
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