A 12-foot alligator is said to be responsible for the gruesome death of 61-year-old James Okkerse and authorities still remain mum about what park officials did or did not do leading up to the tragic incident, a report from the Orlando Sentinel said. Okkerse’s lifeless, partially eaten body was discovered Monday at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida, an official with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission revealed.
Initially, authorities suspected that an alligator that was seen near Okkerse killed him, but this was not immediately known until an investigation by the medical examiner was performed. However, FWC spokesman Lenny Salberg stated that there were several signs of an alligator attack.
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“I don’t know if there were bite marks on the body or not. We found the body on the bottom,” Salberg said Monday during a press conference. “Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Mr. Okkerse’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
After an autopsy, the Volusia County coroner’s office confirmed that James Okkerse died of wounds caused by an alligator while swimming. According to witness statements given to NBC station WESH, a 12-foot alligator was spotted in the area where Okkerse disappeared. Okkerse was swimming and diving in the spring with two friends when he disappeared at around 9 a.m., the report states.
FWC officers launched a search to find the reptile and they scoured the area along Blue Spring.
“If you hear a gunshot that’s because they are looking for the alligator,” Salberg said. “That’s how they take the alligator out.”
They quickly found the animal and officers fired three shots in its direction. The dead alligator was then dragged onto the back of a vehicle. Authorities killed the reptile because, given its size, it was a threat to park visitors who come to enjoy kayaking, snorkeling, and viewing manatees in the river’s warm waters.
Apparently Okkerse, a native of Michigan, used to swim in this area of the park for some 20 years and was in excellent physical shape. Russ and Carol Anen were swimming and snorkeling with James Okkerse just moments before the attack occurred. The couple and Okkerse were close friends and took trips to the spring three times a week for exercise. Anen first spotted the alligator and went to warn his wife and friend.
“I was watching both of them. But then, while I’m watching, she came down. I warned her, she got on the dock, but Jim was overdue,” Anen recalled.
Carol Anen told reporters that James was the strongest swimmer of the three and was ahead of the couple shortly before he disappeared under the waters.
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“All of a sudden he just disappeared. Completely gone out of the water, gone. I swam around, looked for him, didn’t see him,” Carol Anen said.
The couple also expressed anger because they feel that park officials didn’t do enough to warm swimmers of the danger of alligators in the area.
“There should be more information put out there for keeping the park in control rather than things getting out of hand,” Anen said. “We’re not foolish people. We should have been cautioned, and we probably would have asked for the size of the alligator.”
This is the first time a person has died from an attack by an alligator in Florida since 2007. Before the incident, the FWC recorded 22 fatal alligator attacks in the state since 1948. In the same time period, there have been 338 nonfatal alligator attacks, the Orlando Sentinel wrote. Okkerse’s death marks the end of the state’s longest recorded period without a fatal alligator attack.
[Image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images News]