Police found a decomposing body floating in an industrial area Thursday at the mouth of the Inner Harbor, a grim discovery that marks the ninth time since October a person has turned up dead in the waters of Downtown Baltimore.
Investigators say they have found nothing to suggest that the cases might be connected or foul play might have been involved, but officials are puzzled about why there have been so many victims in such a short time.
A Baltimore Sun review of the harbor deaths shows a wide variety of circumstances. Some of the deceased were homeless, lived on houseboats or were simply visiting town. Alcohol has been a factor in several cases.
David Thomas, whose 29-year-old son Evan Curbeam was found in November near Fells Point, said the city is not doing enough to protect people from falling in. He says railings and increased lighting are necessary.
"It's ridiculous that so many people have gone into those waters and lost their lives, and the city is sitting blindly by and not doing anything about it," he said.
But community leaders say they don't know enough about any of the cases to say whether such improvements would have helped. Currents can take bodies far from where they actually fell in, and it can be difficult to determine just when someone died.
"The not-knowing part is the most frustrating," said City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes much of waterfront Baltimore. "I don't know if you can assign it to one indicator."
The Inner Harbor and Harbor East promenades are owned by the city. The rest of the walkways rimming the waterfront are privately owned with easements for public access.
A few places, including the Domino Sugar factory property, have barriers or railings to keep pedestrians away from the water. But in most areas, there are none. Ladders, which are far apart, are not lit, and the water is deep and dark.
Cole said improved lighting is part of a plan intended to update the harbor. Adding railings is the only thing that "could come close" to preventing such incidents, he said, but he's not in favor of that. "I just don't have any indication that were there a railing in place that somebody still wouldn't end up in the water," Cole said.
Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership, said she's noticed the reports of bodies found, and said she's open to discussions about additional ladders or life preservers.
"It's an idea that should be looked into," Schwartz said.
Kathy Dominick, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Transportation, said the city provides life rings along with the ladders in waterfront areas.
"We will continue to review and evaluate conditions along the Inner Harbor promenade for the safety of everyone," she said.
Police do not specifically count or track the deaths of people who are found in the Inner Harbor.
Ellen Worthing, a researcher who lives in South Baltimore, tracks and analyzes city crimes, including bodies found in the harbor. She said she has recorded no more than four or five such cases most years, with a spike of 10 bodies found in the Inner Harbor in 2009.
Among the cases that year was an aide to a Washington, D.C., Council member believed to have slipped off a boat while drinking.
Worthing said the cases can't always be explained. Some involve homeless people or people who were drinking.
Only one case in recent years was determined to involve foul play, and it took more than two years before investigators learned the circumstances. Ankush Gupta, 22, had been walking through the area around Harborplace with friends in April 2008 when he fell into the water and drowned. No one saw what happened, nor did the network of surveillance cameras provides any clues.
But in 2010 police got a tip that a Pasadena man named Wayne Black had admitted to pushing Gupta into the water after asking him for a cigarette. Black was charged with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison.
In a rare case in which cameras captured the incident, police say footage showed that Elizabeth O'Hearn, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine neurologist and professor, died after trying to climb a gate to get inside her property in November 2012.
Police said O'Hearn, who was 53, could be seen falling and stumbling into the water, where her body was found the next day. An autopsy showed that she was intoxicated, police said.
Cole remembers climbing into the Harbor to clean boats as a child. "It's dark. You can't see more than three feet in front of your face. It's entirely possible that people jump in, and get completely disoriented or misjudge the water temperature," he said.
The most recent discovery came Thursday morning when a body was found floating off the 2200 block of S. Clinton St. On Friday, police confirmed the victim was a woman. Police said the body was taken to the state medical examiner's office for an autopsy.
The case comes less than two weeks after the body of Fidel Malik Williams, 27, was found floating near the Rusty Scupper restaurant. Williams had been reported missing from Baltimore County in late December, and an autopsy showed he drowned, police said.
A department spokesman said police found a note and consider his death a suicide.
The cases have come at a consistent pace since October, when Douglas Paige and Imad Ajoub were found in the waters off Harbor East. Police say Paige lived on a houseboat and an autopsy showed he had been drinking heavily, though they do not know how he died. Ajoub, meanwhile, was homeless and had no signs of trauma. Both cases remain open.
In November, Curbeam's family sought the public's help after he went missing during a night out with friends in Fells Point. His body was found in that area about a week later, and investigators believe he fell into the water by accident and drowned.
David Thomas said police couldn't find any useful camera footage of what happened — he referred to the area as a "blind spot" — and he had questions about what had transpired.
"After you get off the emotional shock of it, you realize it's just an accident. There was no evidence to say otherwise," Thomas said. "We had to finally accept that theory."
Two men drowned in the Port Covington area on Dec. 22. A woman who was with Henry Vega and Edwin Rivera and survived told police that they had been drinking and decided to go swimming. When a strong current swept through, she was able to grab something, but Vega and Rivera were not so lucky.
Then on Dec. 28, Robert Gomez, 41, was found in the water near Fells Point. Police said they have found no injuries and the case is open. Relatives could not be reached for comment. Days after he was found, someone used caution tape to tie a bouquet of flowers to a lamppost along with a picture of Gomez that read, "1972 – 2013 RIP Roberto Gomez."
And on New Year's Day, Gordon R. Hostetter, 58, was found near the marina in the Harborview complex. He was an avid boater and lived on a houseboat. Police said his cause and manner of death remain undetermined.
Police said investigators will keep the cases open until they can determine what occurred. "We work very closely with the medical examiner's office and we will look over every clue left at these scenes to ensure we do a complete investigation," said Detective Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun