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Body found in bay confirmed to be missing Navy sailor

Kenneth Gates had been fishing with a friend aboard his 19-foot boat, launched from a ramp at MacDill.
Kenneth Gates had been fishing with a friend aboard his 19-foot boat, launched from a ramp at MacDill.
Published Apr. 23, 2016

Allison Gates implored a higher power to bring her son back to her.

That plea, she believes, was heard.

The body of a man who fit the description of her son, Navy Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Gates, was pulled from Tampa Bay around 5:45 p.m. Thursday, two days after he disappeared while trying to retrieve his boat's stuck anchor.

The Hillsborough County medical examiner on Friday afternoon confirmed that it was Gates, 32, who was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base. But his mother, Allison Gates, already knew.

"The Navy people in white uniforms just left. His body was found this afternoon. God has answered my prayers and my son is being returned," she texted a Tampa Bay Times reporter hours before the medical examiner's announcement.

A boater and his son saw the body floating about 2 miles southeast of Gadsden Point, Coast Guard spokesman David Schuhlein said. That was in the "upper middle" of the roughly 170-square-mile area that vessels from the Coast Guard, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had been searching since midday Tuesday.

The man pulled from the bay Thursday was wearing a wet suit, snorkel and mask, Schuhlein said. He had been missing for about 54 hours.

He was last seen on Tuesday afternoon. That morning he and a friend launched his 19-foot Pro-Line fishing boat from a ramp at MacDill, the Sheriff's Office said. They anchored in about 30 feet of water 2 miles west of Little Harbor, fished until about 11:30 a.m. and decided to move to another location.

But the anchor was stuck, and Gates dived in to free it. He was wearing a diving belt, wet suit, mask, snorkel and also carried a breathing apparatus, according to the Coast Guard.

Gates resurfaced and said he was having trouble dislodging it because of the current and went under again, the Sheriff's Office said. According to the account his friend gave the Coast Guard, Gates was able to free the anchor but went back under again and didn't resurface.

When he didn't come up, the friend frantically waved down another boater who hailed the Coast Guard on the radio.

Gates was assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill. A 10-year Navy veteran, he was assigned to the Force Management Division and served in the human resources office, according to SOCom. He leaves behind a 7-year-old son.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.