U.S. Department of Homeland Security
U.S. COAST GUARD AUXILIARY
DISTRICT 1SR, DIVISION 6
Richard Birgler, DCP-06 Donald Lloyd, VCP-06
By BILL HUGHES
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: June 22, 2004)
CORTLAND — Christopher Wojnowski was 23 years old on the cold, misty night in April 2000 when he vanished from the Bear Mountain Bridge.
His mother, Rosemarie, vividly remembers the last time she saw her only son. She had just returned to her home in Eastchester with groceries as he was heading out in his father's 1989 Toyota Corolla.
"It was getting dark, the roads were slippery. I told him to be careful and he said, 'OK,' " Wojnowski said. "When the police came later that night, my first thought was, 'No way. It can't be my son.' "
The police came that night to tell her that Christopher had disappeared. The Toyota had been found parked on the south side of the bridge, heading east, with the engine running, the passenger door open and the hazard lights flashing. All indicators pointed to suicide.
But after more than four years, the disappearance of Christopher Wojnowski has achieved a unique status in the Hudson Valley.
"He's the only person believed to have jumped off that bridge whose body never surfaced," said state police Investigator Steven Listner.
This month, after a chance meeting with a retired state trooper who recently acquired a new high-tech sonar device on his boat, Listner got an idea about using new technology to try solving an old case.
Without a trace
The last person known to have seen Christopher Wojnowski alive was a toll collector named Trudy Wylie, who told police she spoke to him less than five minutes before he vanished. After seeing what looked like a disabled car near the middle of the bridge from the tollbooth area shortly after 8:30 that night, Wylie drove out to investigate the matter.
Christopher, sitting in the passenger seat, told her his friend was driving and had gone to find a pay phone to call for help. Wylie drove back to the tollbooth, looking for the driver, and then drove back out to the car.
Christopher was gone.
A surveillance video from the tollbooth recorded a shadowy image of a figure moving back and forth between the railing and the passenger side of the car after Wylie's vehicle first pulled away. The figure then recedes into darkness, walking east, and vanishes from the screen. There is no clear image of a young man jumping from the bridge, and there was no suicide note found. Inside the car, police found Christopher's wallet with $30, his driver's license, Visa card and two bank cards.
Christopher's father told investigators that his son had been depressed, that he was battling a drinking problem, had recently quit his job and told him he was going away for a few days because he needed "to straighten some things out in his life."
"We have reason to believe he might have worn a backpack that could have been weighted down," Listner said. "His mother told us he never went anywhere without his backpack, and we didn't find it in the car."
In the past four years, there was little Listner could do with the case other than run routine checks in national databases to see if anyone used Christopher's Social Security number or driver's license information. He followed up every time he heard about unidentified bodies of young men being found anywhere in the country.
New twist on an old case
About a month ago, Listner ran into Greg Porteus, a retired state trooper who now patrols the Hudson River with the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Porteus recently received a donation of a new sonar device by the marine electronics manufacturer Raymarine to assist with search-and-rescue operations on his ship, The Patrolman Henry Walburger.
Listner saw the device on the helm of the Walburger and asked Porteus if he thought the equipment could find a human body at the bottom of the river.
"I told him I didn't know, but I was willing to give it a shot," Porteus said.
Within weeks, the search for Christopher gained momentum through a network of volunteers and paid professionals. Porteus called Raymarine's president, Scott Bentley, and asked him for guidance in using the sonar device. When Bentley heard the story about the search, he volunteered to pay for the services of a team of experts in underwater search techniques.
Another organization, the Bear Search and Rescue Foundation, donated the funds to pay for the team's travel and lodging on the first weekend of this month. Two members of the team, Steve Van Meter and Bob Christ, were involved with finding the bodies of five drowning victims off the coast of Baltimore in March after a water taxi capsized.
Beginning June 4, a group, including state police investigators, search experts and Coast Guard auxiliary members, spent two days searching the area underneath the Bear Mountain Bridge, tracing a grid pattern around the spot approximately 100 feet east of mid-span, where Christopher Wojnowski was last seen. Using a technique called side-scan sonar on the first day, they identified several objects that could have been the missing man's remains.
On the second day, they dropped a robotic camera into the river near the spots the sonar had picked up the previous day. Van Meter, a robotics expert with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, used a VideoRay camera tethered to a portable computer that produced a crisp color image of the river bottom.
The average depth beneath the bridge is about 100 feet and the current at the bottom is swift. Even with powerful spotlights, the camera had a visibility range of less than 2 feet because the current constantly churns up sediment. After searching all day that Saturday, the crew saw little on the computer screen besides rocks, plants and mud.
"If there are remains down there, it's possible that over four years they could have been completely covered by mud," Van Meter said. "But, of course, it's impossible to know for sure." After two days of searching with no luck, Van Meter had to go back to NASA, and the other team members returned to Philadelphia and New Hampshire.
The next phase
The state police and members of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary are discussing the next possible phases of the search, which could involve scouring the shoreline with dogs or dropping something with a tracking device the same size and weight as Christopher from the bridge in an attempt to determine what the currents would do to a weighed-down human body.
"We'd really like to be able to come up with something, anything, that could help this family move past this tragedy in their lives," Listner said.
Christopher's mother said she was grateful for the renewed efforts to find her son, and hopeful that the slightest trace of evidence that Christopher did, in fact, jump would help her reach some closure on his disappearance.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him. It's been like living a nightmare," she said. "It's strange, but I'm the only one in my family who believes he's there, that that's where he went. That's what I believe in my heart."
Reach Bill Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-694-3511.
DIVISION 6 FLOTILLAS
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014-06-05 (To Irvington, N.Y.) 014-06-66 (To Tarrytown, N.Y.)
014-06-07 (To Ossining, N.Y.) 014-06-08 (To Yonkers, N.Y.)
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