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Sheriff: 3 deaths likely murder-suicide

Published Sep. 3, 2005

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Times)

Last Thursday, Joan Shiver placed a pillow over the head of her husband, Byron, and that of his mother, Louise, Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent said during a Wednesday news conference.

She shot each of them twice as they lay sleeping aboard the family's pontoon boat, he said.

She then apparently climbed off the boat, Nugent said, put the barrel of the .357-caliber pistol into her mouth and pulled the trigger again.

Before commiting suicide, she called her son-in-law, Chief Ronald Otterbacher of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. She told him she was under the boat, hiding from three men who were coming on board, Nugent said.

But investigators don't think the Shivers' killer is at large.

"We still have not recovered the weapon. We may never recover it," Nugent said. "But we feel fairly confident that Joan Shiver committed double murder and then shot herself."

The announcement broke nearly a week of relative silence about the deaths of the three Orlando area residents, whose bodies were found off the Hernando coast.

Nugent had planned to release information about the deaths Tuesday, but delayed that after a personal request from Otterbacher, Hernando sheriff's spokesman Lt. Joe Paez said. Otterbacher asked Nugent to wait until after a Tuesday evening memorial service in Orlando.

Byron Shiver, 59, and his mother Louise, 79, were found aboard the family's 30-foot pontoon boat. Joan Shiver, 60, was found in the water a few hundred yards from the boat. Until Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office had not said whether the case was a triple murder or a double murder and suicide.

"We still don't know where Joan shot herself," Nugent said. "But there's no evidence that she shot herself on the boat."

There's a lot that investigators may never know about the deaths because the murders took place at sea, according to Nugent.

They do know the Shivers went on a fishing trip on Tuesday or Wednesday last week. At about midnight that Wednesday, two or three one-minute cellular phone calls were made from the boat to an Orlando Sentinel information line, Nugent said.

The 24-hour line provides updates on stocks, sports and news, but investigators don't know who made the call or what they heard.

Joan Shiver had some financial problems, but Nugent said he didn't know whether the calls were related to her investments.

She used that same phone to call Otterbacher hours later, at 4:33 a.m. Thursday. She told him that she was hiding from three men.

"She mentioned that she was under the boat. But we know that cell phone communication there is iffy at best," Nugent said. "We don't believe she was under the boat when she made that call."

Nugent said the investigation is not closed. He said his detectives plan to go out to sea and re-create the crime scene, and will try to make cellular calls from under a pontoon boat. They also are testing a knife found on board to determine whether it was used to cut the boat from its anchor.

Nugent said county medical examiners had completed autopsies on Monday afternoon, and their findings coincided with other clues indicating Joan Shiver was the shooter.

For example, witnesses aboard a shrimp boat told investigators they saw no other boats or people in the area when they passed the Shivers' boat at 4:30 a.m.

Lt. Joe Paez said both Byron Shiver and Louise were shot in the head while in a normal sleeping position, and appeared not to have been disturbed. Evidence showed that Joan Shiver wrapped the pistol, of a type often used by law enforcement, in a towel to muffle the noise, Nugent later added.

There were no signs of a struggle on the boat, and items of value like wallets, credit cards and around $300 in cash still were there, Paez said.

Joan Shiver's body also showed no marks to indicate there had been a struggle, Paez said. Her only wound was a single gunshot to the mouth.

Byron's .357 pistol, which he kept under his pillow, is missing. In the gun box next to his body were two Black Talon bullets, the same type of bullet recovered from the victims' bodies, Paez said.

"Because she said other men were involved, we had to exhaust every possibility," Nugent said. "We did not want to tell the public one thing, than have to change it."

Nugent said investigators had not determined a motive, but said that besides Joan Shiver's financial problems, all three had had possible health problems.

He said he could not provide details, but said Joan Shiver's health problems had been ongoing.

Otterbacher and other relatives did not return calls on Wednesday.

The Rev. David Schorejs of Parkway Baptist Church in Orlando said family members have been very supportive of each other. Schorejs, who led Tuesday's memorial service, said that about 800 people attended, showing the Shivers "touched the lives of a lot of people."

_ Times researchers Cathy Wos and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Mary Spicuzza can be reached via email at

The chain of events

ABOUT MIDNIGHT: Cellular phone calls are made from the Shivers' boat to the Orlando Sentinel's 24-hour information line.

4:30 A.M.: Witnesses aboard a shrimp boat pass the Shivers' boat. They later told deputies they observed no activity, other boats or people in the area.

4:33 A.M.: Joan Shiver calls her son-in-law, Chief Ron Otterbacher of the Orange County Sheriff's Office, saying three men are coming onto the boat. Otterbacher calls his office, which calls the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

ABOUT 5:30 A.M.: Sheriff's deputies find the 30-foot pontoon boat grounded on rocks in Centipede Bay, about a half-mile from shore. The bodies of Byron and Louise Shiver are found inside the boat. Joan Shiver's body is in the water.