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At Lake Tahoe, a scuba diver's body is recovered after 17 years

The well-preserved remains of Donald Christopher Windecker are discovered on an underwater shelf. Accompanied by a friend, he set out for a dive on July 10, 1994, and never returned.

August 09, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • A view of Lake Tahoe
A view of Lake Tahoe (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Authorities at Lake Tahoe on Monday solved the mystery of a scuba diver who disappeared 17 years ago in the mountain lake's deep, frigid waters.

The well-preserved body of Donald Christopher Windecker was discovered July 23 on an underwater shelf, 265 feet below the surface. A remote-controlled mini-submarine with a robotic claw raised the remains July 27. The recovery occurred on the lake's west side, near Rubicon Point.

Officials delayed releasing Windecker's name until dental records confirmed his identity. Four more divers remain missing in the same area, which is infamous for swallowing up victims.

Windecker's body was clad in a wetsuit and buckled into a weight belt and air tank. The scuba gear bore a certification from 1994, officials with the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department said. Just beyond the ledge where Windecker's body was found, the lake plunges to a depth of 1,645 feet.

News reports at the time of Windecker's disappearance described him as a 44-year-old former city planner from Reno who set out for a dive on July 10, 1994. Accompanied by a friend, Windecker planned to swim to a depth of about 100 feet.

But trouble occurred toward the end of the dive as the pair began to ascend. Windecker reportedly experienced difficulty with his equipment and began to sink. His companion tried to help but began running out of air and was forced to surface.

"His remains are in amazing physical condition," said Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Byers. "We'll be able to do a thorough autopsy. He may have had a heart attack or a stroke or maybe just ran out of air. Hopefully we'll determine what happened."

Windecker's body was discovered by a group of "mixed gas" divers exploring cliff walls, Byers said.

Mixed gas divers can safely descend to about 350 feet without suffering nitrogen narcosis, or "rapture of the depths," among other problems. Conventional scuba divers have to stop at about 100 feet.

Byers said those in the diving group were startled to see Windecker's motionless form. "It was pretty scary for them. They were wondering, 'What's this person doing down here?'" he said. He did not identify members of the group.

The surprising condition of the body is attributable to the 35-degree water and the increased pressure at the 265-foot depth, Byers said.

He dismissed speculation that Windecker had gone undiscovered for so long because his body had been caught in underwater tunnels that legend says connects Lake Tahoe with Pyramid Lake northeast of Reno.

Some Tahoe locals insist that bodies of boaters and swimmers who drowned in Lake Tahoe have turned up Pyramid Lake and vice versa. They insist the tunnels are the result of volcanic activity.

"Lava tube connections between Lake Tahoe and other lakes are an urban myth," Byers said.

Other stories about oddities beneath Lake Tahoe have been debunked by experts. Some in the region insist that famed diver and naturalist Jacques Cousteau explored the lake in a mini-submarine in the mid-1970s and emerged pale and shaken.

Asked what he'd seen and filmed on the lake bottom, Cousteau reportedly replied, "The world isn't ready for what's down there."

Depending on who is telling the story, Cousteau either encountered a Loch Ness-type monster that locals have dubbed "Tahoe Tessie" or came upon a bunch of dead people.

Among those said to populate Lake Tahoe's dark depths are Chinese laborers who helped build the railroad across the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s. Others contend the watery grave contains card cheats and mobsters killed by the Mafia and anchored to the lake bottom by concrete-filled casino ice buckets, "wearing pinstriped suits, with sneers on their faces and bullet holes in their foreheads," as the San Francisco Chronicle put it in 2004.

Tales persist that a "longtime Tahoe fire chief" responded to a drowning call and found the body of a well-preserved Native American girl, fully clothed in a 19th century ceremonial dress, floating in the lake.

But Cousteau never explored the lake. Some say his grandson, Philippe Cousteau Jr., visited there, but only for a 2002 speaking engagement. And authorities say they have used sonar and mini-subs to map the lake's bottom and never found such a graveyard. Nobody knows the name or affiliation of the supposed "longtime Tahoe fire chief."

They found Donald Christopher Windecker, though. Although El Dorado County authorities say he had no close relatives, those who counted him as a friend are thankful this mystery has been resolved.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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