Diving for Evidence

Cover photo: Terrell Manasco

All other photos courtesy of the Jasper Police Department Search and Recovery Dive Team

 

When Jasper Police Chief J.C. Poe began forming a search-and-recovery dive team earlier this year, he approached Lt. Joe Homan to be the leader. Homan, a 10-year veteran of the Jasper Police Department originally from Oakman, had dived among the ruins of historical shipwrecks before serving with the chief on the Smith Lake Task Force.

The newly formed Jasper Police Department Search and Recovery Dive Team is comprised of Homan, officer Eric Hendrix, and officer Richard Mathura, a 20-year diving veteran who hails from the Virgin Islands. “My experience with diving has always been recreational,” Mathura says. “I got my dive card in 1999. There was a sign-up sheet for the dive team, and I decided to get back into it more frequently.”

The team trains two days a month, using scenarios such as a body recovery or searching for evidence. Most training is done in Walker County Lake and Smith Lake, the latter of which is notorious for its murky diving conditions. “Smith Lake is probably the most difficult place I’ve ever dived,” Homan says. “The visibility is horrible. My wife and I have done penetration dives on ships, and it’s not as bad as Smith Lake.”

Another concern is avoiding the more dangerous marine life. Divers must constantly be on guard for snapping turtles, snakes, and other aquatic creatures. “I’ve seen alligator gar, but they’re mostly in the back sloughs,” Mathura says. “Most of my diving has been in the Caribbean. You have to look out for bigger predators than yourself. Diving on the lakes has its own hazards as far as marine life, and the obstructions you cannot see until you’re right up on them.”

The dive team also occasionally trains at Blue Water Park in Pelham. Homan says the 27-acre facility offers significant advantages over the local lakes. “They’ve got some great platforms,” Homan says. “They submerge cars, boats, and school buses. They’re a supporter of law enforcement and have been a huge help to us.”

Sometimes conditions may be unfavorable or too dangerous for divers. To aid in the search, the team uses advanced, state-of-the-art equipment, including 3D side-scan sonar and a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV. “Using the side-scan sonar is so beneficial, because it eliminates a lot of things,” Mathura says. “That way, you don’t have to risk divers going down all the time, because you can exhaust a diver.”

Snakes, snapping turtles, and alligator gar are not the only dangers lurking in the water. Divers must also be on guard for boaters who veer too close. “We always dive in pairs,” Mathura says. “We always have someone topside on the boat, making sure the area is clear, and they can wave off any boaters coming close by.”

Although the team is still new, Homan says the reaction from the people of Walker County has been highly encouraging. “The public has been really receptive. They’ve been great and really supported us.” 78

 

 

 

 

 

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