Fire and Water

Fairfax told detectives that he shouted and waved at John Hernandez, who was snorkeling several yards away, oblivious to the developing disaster. As John began swimming toward his friend, Fairfax saw Maria suddenly stop struggling and appear unconscious. The two men said they dragged her to the surface, where John attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In the next minutes, the men said they hauled Maria through the water to the edge of the boat and, with difficulty, got her on board.

While Fairfax tried to start the engine, John again attempted mouth-to-mouth and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, causing Maria to throw up. John succeeded in starting the boat motor, but found his marine radio would not transmit. Heading toward land, John fired one emergency flare from a flare gun. Minutes later, he spotted another vessel, brought his boat alongside, and made a 911 call on a cellular telephone.

The July 15 autopsy of Maria Hernandez's body did nothing to either discount the witnesses' explanation of what took place or elucidate what, specifically, caused the drowning. Other physical evidence was similarly unenlightening. Every item of scuba equipment the party had used earlier in the day was examined and tested by a local consultant and found to be in good working order. A compressed-air analysis of the contents of the dive tanks was performed in a state Department of Health and Human Services lab. The air was normal. The mask-defogging solution all three divers had used was analyzed and found to contain nothing but water and rubbing alcohol. Maria's mask and snorkel, and the rubber mouthpiece she had torn from Fairfax's respirator in the last moments of her life, were never recovered.

The half-dozen small cuts and bruises on Maria Hernandez's body and face were considered to be consistent with postmortem swelling, and with the witnesses' description of how they dragged the unconscious woman over the gunwales of John Hernandez's boat. What looked like teeth marks on the stem of Fairfax's diving respirator were pondered by Dr. Richard Souviron, a highly regarded forensic dentist. His conclusion: It's impossible to say what the marks mean to the case, or even if they are teeth marks.

Notes from the case file in the medical examiner's office indicate that investigators were somewhat puzzled that both Fairfax and Maria Hernandez had failed to ditch the weight belts they were believed to be wearing during their last encounter. Both had been trained to do precisely that in an emergency situation. If Maria had been wearing a weighted dive belt, as investigators assumed, that would help explain why her buoyant body was able to sink below the surface of the water. And the presence of the belt seemed to indicate to investigators that she intended to do some intermittent free diving as she snorkeled -- an activity that could have contributed to an accidental drowning.

Through July and August, detectives' notes show they thought Maria was wearing her pink-and-black weight belt when she died, and that Fairfax and John Hernandez had been too panicked to remove it while Maria was in the water. But in the first week of September, when Det. Doug Stephens flew to Detroit to interview Fairfax once again, the lawyer stated that the weight belt had not, in fact, been used by Maria while she was snorkeling. In a telephone conversation with chief medical examiner Davis in mid-September, John Hernandez agreed that was the case. The absence of the weight belt explained why Maria Hernandez never ditched it. But the absence also made it less clear why the overweight swimmer, buoyant and wearing kick fins, found herself below the surface of the ocean, losing a fight for her life.

Part Three
Victor Pidermann, lead detective in the homicide division's investigation of the death, says the discrepancy in the story about the belt was a simple misunderstanding. "Nobody ever really said that she was wearing a weight belt," Pidermann explains. "It was an asssumption we made until it was clarified by Fairfax and John Hernandez. It was an assumption we made initially because we saw the weight belt lying next to her on the boat when they brought her in."

Pidermann, who is in the process of closing out the investigation of the drowning and classifying it as an accident, says he feels confident the inquiry has been thorough and complete. He has no lingering doubts. "There's no information to lead us to the conclusion that this is anything other than an accidental drowning," Pidermann explains. "There was nothing that indicated any foul play. It pretty much is closed as an accidental drowning, with the angle that if something comes up, it can be reopened."

Sometime after 2:00 a.m. on November 5, 1990, a roiling bank of flame roared from the kitchen to the dining room in an empty three-bedroom bungalow on Island Road. The fire started in a pan of cooking oil on the burner of an electric stove and ended with a damage estimate of $30,000. At 2:21 a.m. an alarmed neighbor called 911 to report flames pouring from the rear of the house in Cutler Ridge.

Within minutes a team of four firefighters pulling a one-and-three-quarter-inch fire hose had entered through the open back door of the one-story home and poured 100 gallons of water on the flames. Two other fire trucks arrived to help out. Though the entire house was damaged by smoke, the quick efforts of the fire team saved the roof and concrete-block walls. The fire, after a routine examination by an arson investigator, was ruled an accident.

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