ST. PETERSBURG — A severely decomposed body was found in the mangroves of Lake Maggiore on Thursday morning, leaving investigators with questions about who it was and what happened.
Witnesses saw alligators dragging the body through the water, but city police said it’s too soon to know the cause of death. The Medical Examiner's Office will work to identify the body and use evidence to piece together how it ended up there.
“It is badly decomposed,” police department spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said. “We’re unable to tell anything about it — gender or race or anything.”
St. Petersburg resident Otis Crawford and his partner, Patricia Kays, found the body about 8 a.m.
They come to Lake Maggiore every morning to eat breakfast together by the water. He grew up nearby.
Between bites of crackers and bologna, they spotted something floating between bushes along the lake’s southeastern bank. It was surrounded by about 10 alligators, said Crawford, 57.
“It was hard to tell if it was a person or an animal,” he said. “I got out of the car to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing.”
That’s when the gators started dragging the body south through the water.
“I saw an alligator take a chunk out of (the body), throw it up in the air and catch it and eat it,” said Kays, 60. “I had to go back to the car after that. I couldn’t watch it anymore.”
The couple told a nearby city worker what they saw, then called police.
The department contacted St. Petersburg Fire Rescue to remove the body from the lake using a small, red boat. Later, the boat made its way across the lake to look for evidence, like personal items, that might help investigators identify the body. It returned with nothing.
At noon, the body was still awaiting pickup by the Medical Examiner’s Office, resting in shallow water nearby a dock shielded by parked police cruisers. It was wrapped in a black, plastic bag and placed on a stretcher that was loaded into an unmarked white van within the hour.
Within eyesight of the dock, Tracy Black decorated a pavilion for a Fourth of July party. Yellow crime scene tape laced through neighboring trees.
“I was like, ‘Do we really still want to have this party here?’” she recalled thinking when she arrived to the park about 10 a.m.
“We come here often. But there’s no crime scene usually.”
Summertime is mating season for alligators, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website. Courtship between male and female gators starts in early April. Mating begins in June and by early July, females begin building nests. Alligators enjoy sunbathing on land during warm weather, too, which could cause them to come onto land more often during this time of year.
Black, 55, said her party at the park would go on. But what unfolded steps from the pavilion will stick in her mind.
“It’s sad and unfortunate,” she said. “That’s somebody’s family member in there.”
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow @mareevs.