Rapture of the Deep

A voyage into the murky underworld off Key Largo turns deadly

As with karate, Scott — with his dark brown hair, brown eyes, and muscular build — gravitated toward teaching. On weekends he would take students to Dutch Springs, a freshwater lake in nearby Pennsylvania, to dive. In 1992 he helped cofound Treasure Cove, a dive shop in Westfield, a town of 30,000 just 25 minutes southwest of New York City. The small store catered to wealthy weekend warriors who had enough money to spend on $5000 regulators. Scott — when he wasn't diving, teaching, or taking his 140-pound English mastiff, Lucy, to the dog park on Sundays — would spend his free time behind the counter, selling equipment or filling tanks.

One day he came home from the shop and rushed up to Marianne. "Guess who I met today?" he said breathlessly. "Richie Kohler."

Kohler, who worked as a glass salesman by day, was already a legend at the time, known for diving dangerous wrecks in his spare time. He was also on the verge of discovering a previously unknown German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. Soon the two were friends. Kohler, a lifelong diver, was impressed with Scott's love of the sport, his patience with students, and his levelheadedness.

Rob Bleser, a Key Largo dive shop owner, was instrumental in bringing the Spiegel Grove to Florida waters
Tamara Lush
Rob Bleser, a Key Largo dive shop owner, was instrumental in bringing the Spiegel Grove to Florida waters
On March 16, 2007 four friends dove the Spiegel Grove. Only one survived
Monroe County Sheriff
On March 16, 2007 four friends dove the Spiegel Grove. Only one survived

"I would trust my children to be trained by Scott Stanley," Kohler says. "Scott was a very good diver. He was an excellent instructor. Competent. Thorough. He knew his limits. He didn't have a macho attitude." The two went on occasional expeditions together, setting anchor lines and diving wrecks.

Scott also made dozens of other dive friends at Treasure Cove. Jonathan Walsweer was a 38-year-old financial analyst who had been diving since he was a boy. Scott and Walsweer often took dive trips with their wives to Mexico and other Caribbean locales.

Marianne said that Scott loved to read up on wrecks — he had amassed a small library of dive volumes in the basement of their 100-year-old colonial home — and was excited about the Spiegel Grove. He first dove the wreck in 2002 and loved it so much that he brought David back the next year.

Another dive buddy was a local judge and lawyer named Howard Spialter. Like Scott, Spialter was a passionate diver and instructor. Though Spialter was three years younger, he looked a bit older with his shaggy beard and wire-rimmed glasses. Spialter — who declined to speak with New Times despite two phone calls and a letter sent to his home — also liked wrecks and cave diving and occasionally took chances, according to two men who called themselves acquaintances of Spialter but declined to give their names.

Scott and Spialter were best friends, and they dove together often, making pilgrimages to the Andrea Doria and the Spiegel Grove. They were very different outings, one in cold, dark water, the other in warm turquoise seas. Spialter would realize this during one South Florida dive in 2006, according to one of the two unnamed sources, who recounted the tale on scubaboard.com. Spialter penetrated the Spiegel Grove with a buddy and found himself inside the pump room, deep in the ship's bowels. He had scattered strobe lights around the ship like a trail of breadcrumbs so he could find his way out.

When he reached the room, Spialter was completely relaxed in the pitch black, one unnamed friend says. But then he became anxious. He was worried about running out of air and was having a bit of difficulty finding a way out. He described the water as being "like black pea soup."

Spialter hadn't run a line — a reel of thick rope that allows divers to follow it to safety outside the wreck — into the pump room, the friend continues. So he had to feel his way out. Finally, though, the judge escaped with barely enough air in his tank to survive, the friend says. "I was stunned when I heard the story," adds the friend. "I asked him why he hadn't run a line.

"He just kind of shrugged. There was no excuse given."

At the beginning of 2007 Scott Stanley, Howard Spialter, Jonathan Walsweer, and another friend from the Westfield dive shop — 51-year-old Kevin Coughlin — decided make a spring pilgrimage to the warm waters of Key Largo. Scott's 23-year-old-son, Dave, was scheduled to go, but changed plans at the last minute.

Walsweer, who had also visited the Spiegel Grove before, had a wife and two little boys. He had been diving since he was eight years old and was an instructor. Coughlin's story was a little different: He was a single real estate investor. He had battled alcoholism and homelessness and blossomed into a success story. He had logged 300 dives around the world. Not as many as Scott, perhaps, but a respectable number nonetheless.

On March 14 the four arrived in South Florida. Scott called Marianne when their plane touched down in Miami; he wanted her to know that he was safe.

They had booked rooms at the Key Largo Suites Hotel, a two-story, beige stucco building that overlooks a marina. They didn't make much of an impression checking in; the manager was so busy that he never laid eyes on them. The four were just more divers who had come south for some fun.

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