A diver’s body was found deep in the ocean off the Keys. But was the recovery legal?

Rob Stewart was a well-known Canadian filmmaker and conservationist. He went missing after a deep dive off Islamorada on Jan. 31, 2017. A team of divers on a search mission found his body on the ocean floor, 220 feet down, on Feb. 3, 2017.
Rob Stewart was a well-known Canadian filmmaker and conservationist. He went missing after a deep dive off Islamorada on Jan. 31, 2017. A team of divers on a search mission found his body on the ocean floor, 220 feet down, on Feb. 3, 2017.

The Monroe County Medical Examiner threatened criminal action against divers who recovered the body of a Toronto filmmaker found deep in the ocean off Islamorada, saying the recovery effort should not have consisted of private divers, including one hired by a defense attorney to take photos in anticipation of a lawsuit by the filmmaker’s family, according to documents filed in federal court this week.

What was originally celebrated as an amazing feat of daring diving and deep-water navigation when Rob Stewart’s body was found in February 2017 more than 200 feet below the water’s surface, quickly devolved into a public relations fiasco for the diving team. Authorities originally identified the divers as members of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, but the department later disavowed them, saying it never had a dive unit.

The situation became murkier as court documents filed in litigation over Stewart’s death revealed the identities of the divers and whose interests they represented.

In May 2017, four months after the body was found, the filmmaker’s family filed suit against the Key Largo dive shop, Horizon Dive Adventures, whose boat ferried the 37-year-old Stewart on his fateful dive to film a documentary about shark conservation, according to court documents. The family contends Horizon did not properly look after Stewart as he tread water behind the dive boat while waiting to board the vessel.

He sank after surfacing.

An attorney representing the dive shop’s insurance company retained Craig S. Jenni, a Boca Raton attorney involved in many diving accident lawsuits, to go on the dive to recover Stewart’s body — and take photos as possible evidence.

He was not, as the official narrative went, a member of the fire department’s dive team. Nor were the other two divers who brought Stewart’s body up from 220 feet of water on Feb. 3, 2017. They were Horizon Dive Adventures owner Dan Dawson and one of his employees.

The only person affiliated with the fire department participating in the operation was Rob Bleser, a dive shop owner who led dozens of underwater rescue and recovery operations for the volunteer fire department for decades. After Stewart’s body was found, the department distanced itself from Bleser.

Bleser, who resigned from the fire department in April 2017, was operating the remote-controlled submarine with a video camera on it from the deck of the Pisces, a Horizon Dive Adventures boat. He was the one who located the body.

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Coast Guardsman searches for the missing diver, Toronto filmmaker Rob Stewart, who perished in a diving accident in January 2017. This was day one of the search. Stewart’s body was eventually found in 220 feet of water on Feb. 3, 2017.

Dr. Thomas Beaver, the Monroe County medical examiner whom the county severed its relationship with in May 2017, due to Beaver’s reaction to the recovery operation, lashed out at Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department Chief Don Bock.

In a Feb. 21, 2017, email, he stated his office was not consulted before Stewart’s body was retrieved, which he said is against state law, according to the email transcripts released this week as part of the Stewart family’s lawsuit.

“Florida Statute 406 vests ALL authority to recover human remains with the Medical Examiner. It also prohibits moving and/or tampering with human remains without PRIOR approval from the Medical Examiner,” Beaver wrote in the email to Bock.

“There was no communication with my office and NO approval was requested or given,’’ he wrote. “I consider your actions and the actions of those involved in the recovery a flagrant violation of Statute 406 and a complete disregard for the authority of the Medical Examiner.”

He said in the email that he was going to “report the circumstances of this recovery and the obstruction of this death investigation” to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Beaver could not be reached for comment; an FDLE spokeswoman said Friday the agency has no record of a complaint.

The Stewart estate is suing Horizon, Peter Sotis, Stewart’s dive partner and the man who trained him on the complex rebreather scuba gear he used the day he died, and Sotis’ firm, the Fort Lauderdale-based Add Helium. The estate contends each party was responsible for Stewart’s death.

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Rob Stewart’s parents at a press conference regarding the lawsuit against Peter Sotis and Add Helium at Haggard Law Firm in Coral Gables. March 28, 2017. Stewart, a 37-year-old Toronto filmmaker, died in a diving accident off Islamorada in January 2017. VINCENT DEVRIES

rEvo, the Belgium-based manufacturer of the rebreathers Stewart and Sotis used, filed a motion in the case last month after Horizon’s attorneys said in court papers the dive gear may have contributed to Stewart’s death.

Christopher Lanza, an attorney representing rEvo, wrote in an Aug. 20 filing that the recovery operation was a “criminal conspiracy to tamper with evidence to misdirect the authorities’ suspicions away from Horizon and to frame rEvo and/or Peter Sotis for causing Stewart’s death.”

Horizon’s attorneys counterfiled, contending Lanza’s motion “gratuitously and falsely attacks the recovery efforts by maliciously misrepresenting the existence of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department’s Water Emergency Team, wrongly accusing the volunteer divers of committing a crime and averring Horizon tampered with evidence.”

Beaver was uneasy with the search, and that dive shop owner Dawson and his insurance company were part of the search team.

“At this point, I am uncomfortable with the commercial dive company that was involved with the incident also being involved with the investigation,” Beaver wrote Bock on Feb. 1.

The three divers who descended the depths to recover the body were Dawson, a Horizon employee and Jenni, the attorney retained by Horizon’s insurance company, Witherspoon & Associates.

Jenni’s biography on Witherspoon’s website states: “Craig is the chief investigator for our program and directly assists Donna Albert [Horizon’s attorneys] in gathering information needed to mount a successful defense for our clients.”

Albert and Jenni did not return requests for comment.

The biography further states Jenni is “president and primary investigator” of a company called Dive and Marine Consultants International.

In a Dec. 1, 2017, court filing by Albert, she states she possessed 34 photographs “obtained by Dive and Marine Consultants February 2 and 3, 2017, at the direction of Donna E. Albert,” and the photographs “were taken in anticipation for litigation.”

It’s not clear if anyone aboard the Pisces knew why Jenni was involved with the recovery.

Brock Cahill, Stewart’s friend and business partner who was on the Pisces the day he went missing and during the three-day recovery operation, was asked in a June deposition whether Jenni identified who had hired him. Cahill said Jenni’s colleague, Kell Levendorf, who was also on the boat, told him they were marine investigators with IANTD, the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers.

But Cahill was never told that Jenni represented Horizon’s insurance company, according to his deposition.

“No, I did not know that,” he said.

Bleser, in an interview Thursday, said he did not know who was employing Jenni. He said he’s worked with him on several deep-water recovery missions in the past and sought him out.

“To the best of my recollection, I called him. I asked him if he could join us,” Bleser said. “I needed all the help I could get.”

Bleser said the Key Largo fire department and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office asked him to search for Stewart.

“This response was not invented. We were requested by the sheriff’s office and quantified and qualified by the fire chief under the incident command of the United States Coast Guard with direct and continued contact with the sheriff’s office, who knew the crew we had,” Bleser said.

The Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment.

In a March 2017 report, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Nicholas Thaler wrote that Jenni and Levendorf “told Brock during the recovery that they were volunteers. It wasn’t until after Rob was recovered that they told him they worked for the insurance company that covers Horizon Divers.”

Bock, the fire chief, said he did not know who made up the dive team that day.

“I don’t know the divers’ names, but I do know they did an amazing job locating him,” Bock said.

Stewart was in the Keys filming an installment of his Sharkwater documentary series. He went missing Jan. 31, 2017, after completing his third deep dive that day at more than 220 feet on the Queen of Nassau wreck.

Sotis, his dive partner and rebreather trainer, exited the water onto the Pisces first and quickly had a medical event, briefly passing out. While the Pisces crew, and Sotis’ wife, a doctor, tended to him, Stewart was still in the water. He initially gave an “OK” signal, but slipped beneath the waves before anyone noticed.

The dive shop’s crew, who ferried Stewart and Sotis to the dive site, were responsible for watching anyone in the water, according to the Stewart family’s lawyers.

A multi-agency air and sea search ensued, covering 6,000 square miles. When Bleser located Stewart Feb. 3, his body was more than 220 feet below the surface, but about 300 feet from where he was last seen.

A U.S Coast Guard Investigative Services report on the incident was finished late last year, but has yet to be released to the public.