FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Patty and Bill Kamerer were explorers, adventurers, seeking hidden islands just like the patch of alabaster and coral known as Pipe Cay, a tiny atoll in the Exuma chain off the Bahamas.
The island served as a tracking station during World War II. Its former tenants left no trace of humankind save a few tilting buildings and a rickety dock that juts invitingly into a crystalline cove.
The Kamerers let anchor and, aboard their tall-masted sloop the Kalia III, scribbled over the full-moon symbol on their cabin's wall calendar with a tiny happy face--a smile, two dots for eyes.
A few hours later, they were accosted, and murdered, by pirates.
First on the Scene
Harry (Bus) Yourell was first on the scene. He'd been shark-hunting with his son, and he nosed his cruiser into the cay's lagoon the evening of July 31, five days after the killings, dated by the Kamerers' diary. The skies were saffron, the setting peaceful, he remembered.
"I saw this boat, just floating there. We hailed it by name, the Kalia III, and got no answer," said Yourell, 67, a former Illinois state representative. "We pulled alongside."
Bill Kamerer's bloodied body was draped over the gunwales. "The stench was horrible."
Yourell climbed aboard, half expecting to meet his maker. A black cat bolted from a lower cabin, shrieking like a banshee, and Yourell's son, holding a high-powered rifle, nearly shot his father in the shocking encounter.
Yourell peered across the deck.
Spent Flare Gun Shells
"It was full of spent flare gun shells and splintered shotgun marks." Patty's body was there too, badly mutilated.
Later, Yourell figured the vacationing Kamerers had come across some secret stash on the island--drugs, money--and radioed authorities on a common band monitored by police and criminals alike. The ship was boarded soon after, but not by police, and the slaughter done. Bill was 47, Patty 35.
At first, Bahamian authorities denied the crime, and might never have lent the investigation even lip service had Yourell not come up with video and snapshots of the victims. But then the crucial evidence vanished.
A week after Yourell reported the incident and the ship was hauled away, the bodies disappeared. So did the blood and the torn clothing. The boat, taken to a Bahamian port, was refurbished stem to stern, waxed and scoured, as if nothing had happened.
Six years after the Kalia III dropped anchor in balmy Pipe cove, the case remains unsolved. Today, the sloop rocks untended in a slip off Charlotte Harbor in southern Florida, its sides rasped with age and neglect. Because no crime was committed, officially, the ship is regarded as salvage, not evidence. In another year or two, the Kamerer's children can claim it.
Yourell still sails the West Indies in quest of great sharks. But he warns travelers to beware of ghost ships--the fishing trawlers with no nets or lines on their poles, or the sloops, sails furled, rocking in the wind. For there are brigands about. And they kill.
Some of the pirates are protecting secrets. Others are after commercial cargo--or sleek, expensive private yachts that can be sold or used for drug-running.
Horace Schmahl, 78, deals with less bloodthirsty criminals, but pirates nevertheless. By and large, his prey are not murderers, but scheming businessmen or skilled saboteurs who seek to defraud the U.S. government, world shippers, boat owners or insurance companies. Often his clients have reached dead ends in their own investigations and pay him to track down lost crews, cargo and vessels. He has no illusions about the immensity of his task.
'Inundated With Sea Criminals
"This area is completely inundated with sea criminals," said Schmahl, a Harvard lawyer now living in Fort Lauderdale; his marine survey firm keeps 53,000 separate files involving crimes on the high seas.
"There's been an unbelievable upsurge in just the past few years. You should see the scams," he said.
Unfortunately, many of the international scams are never unraveled.
One reason: The American government has no formal relationship with Interpol, the international police agency, and so must deal through intermediaries to track down the sea-going outlaws.
"That's the isolationist legacy of J. Edgar Hoover," Schmahl said.
The 12-Mile Limit
"The lack of international connections makes it tough going to do our job," acknowledged John Ralph, New York district Coast Guard intelligence officer. "Our jurisdiction ends at the 12-mile limit. We have few means once the (stolen) boat is at sea. Even if we know a boat is in possession of pirates, and we see it heading out, we have to notify the proper authorities in what we guess to be the destination country, and leave it at that."
The political complexities and frustrations of pirate-tracking can be seen in the Schmahl agency's voluminous files.
Just a few weeks ago, the agency closed its books on the case of Netanya II, a multimillion-dollar yacht owned by the founder of a New York medical supply group.