Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Public safety

Lawsuit: Husband drowned wife off Madeira Beach, framed it as accident

A man drowned his wife off the coast of Madeira Beach and framed it as an accident, claims the woman’s mother in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The filing comes almost two years after 37-year-old Blaise Gamba died after a boating trip with her husband. In the suit, Blaise Gamba’s mother, Nancy Huhta, accuses William Gamba, 39, of concocting an elaborate coverup to make money off his wife’s $1 million life insurance policies and their joint assets, including a waterfront home in Madeira Beach he sold last year for $1.5 million.

The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a drowning and the manner of death as undetermined. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office homicide detectives are still investigating, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Wednesday.

"We are conducting a criminal investigation based upon the circumstances, and he (William Gamba) is certainly somebody that we are looking at," the sheriff said.

The Sheriff’s Office originally reported the Nov. 13, 2016, death as a diving accident. William Gamba told an investigator that he had been scuba diving while his wife was snorkeling. He looked up and saw her "making unusual jerking movements" then looked down and saw a 5-foot cobia.

ORIGINAL STORY: Woman injured in suspected diving accident off Madeira Beach dies.

He said that at first thought she was afraid of the fish, but she continued jerking around then went still, according to a medical examiner report. He swam to her and brought her head above water, then helped her onto the boat. She was coughing the whole time and didn’t speak. As he headed back toward land, she stopped coughing. He flagged down another boater about five miles west of Madeira Beach.

The man climbed aboard and radioed authorities while William Gamba performed CPR on his wife, the Sheriff’s Office said. He had a medical emergency and went unconscious shortly after deputies met them a half-mile west of John’s Pass.

Paramedics rushed them to Palms of Pasadena Hospital. Blaise Gamba was pronounced dead the next day.

"There’s singularly no greater hardship that a person can experience than the loss of a child," said Palm Harbor lawyer Wil Florin, representing Huhta.

William Gamba’s St. Petersburg defense lawyer, Lucas Fleming, said Tuesday that his client denies the allegations and contends his wife’s death was an accident.

"He’s shocked and speechless because of what we believe are inaccurate claims made in the complaint," Fleming said, adding that the lawsuit is especially tough on the widower with the two-year anniversary approaching.

William Gamba lives in California and works as a chief nursing officer at a hospital, according to the lawsuit. Blaise Gamba worked as a business litigation lawyer at Carlton Fields, a national law firm with an office in Tampa.

Lawyers from Florin’s firm conducted their own investigation that lays out this scheme in the lawsuit:

Blaise Gamba was swimming on the surface when her husband pulled her under. He held her there until it seemed as if she had drowned.

When they met with deputies, he faked his own medical emergency to deflect blame and protect him from talking to them. He continued dodging investigators by pretending to have a seizure and forcing deputies out of his hospital room, saying he was too sick to talk to them. Fleming said Gamba "from the beginning complied with law enforcement.’’

Meanwhile, witnesses said he "showed no emotion" while his wife was dying and was more interested in her medical condition and law enforcement’s involvement in the case.

After her death, William Gamba became "unusually interested" in progressing with her organ donation. Her lungs were harvested for donation. Blaise Gamba’s autopsy notes that her lungs were absent along with several other organs. The medical examiner drew the conclusion that she drowned based on circumstances, hospital records and the fact that the autopsy didn’t reveal any other findings, said Bill Pellan, director of investigations at the office.

William Gamba’s actions in the days and weeks after Blaise Gamba’s death were "highly inconsistent with those of someone who was mourning the loss of a spouse," the lawsuit says.

He stopped wearing his wedding ring and had it appraised for resale along with his wife’s wedding and engagement rings. He called her job to ask when he could expect her final paycheck and life insurance proceeds. He asked Huhta to get his wife’s belongings. He sold his wife’s car, although Fleming said a neighbor initially approached him about it.

Deputies found one set of scuba equipment on the boat they had rented, a medical examiner’s report says. The scuba equipment was incorrectly assembled, according to the lawsuit, and William Gamba’s dive computer didn’t show any dives on the day they were on the water.

The lawsuit goes on to say that William Gamba’s actions were premeditated. About two weeks prior to her death, the couple was on a trip to the Florida Keys. He told his wife to buy a thick, full-body wet suit. The thickness of the material prevented bruising or scratching from showing up, the lawsuit says. But it also adds to the wet suit’s buoyancy, making it less likely she would accidentally drown.

However, Fleming said that allegation didn’t make sense because they had invited Huhta to join them that day and had plans to meet up with friends on the water that fell through.

On the organ donation claim, Fleming said William Gamba "made no decision about which organs would or would not be donated" because he was unconscious during that time.

The lawsuit paints William Gamba as a career fraudster who was cheating on his wife with multiple women. Blaise Gamba’s diary entries in the months before her death show that she was thinking about confronting him about the affairs.

He previously staged two car accidents he later got payouts for, according to the lawsuit. He later set fire to another car and a boat to get insurance payments. While he was a patient at a New York hospital, he threw himself off a gurney, the lawsuit says. That resulted in a six-figure payout.

"The events of this case are a natural progression of his insurance fraud portfolio," the lawsuit says, "as he has now moved on from simple property damage and self-inflicted personal injury to intentional murder for the purpose of life insurance recovery."

Fleming said his client made no money off the car and boat incidents. The incident at the hospital sprung from a worker’s compensation claim that resulted in a settlement.

Huhta is requesting a jury trial and seeking "everything that the law allows" in damages, Florin said.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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