Something you don’t see every day: seagulls standing on the ocean. A 20-year-old surfer named David Corriea would tell this to investigators and reporters later. It was a couple hours ahead of sunset and there they were, just standing out there, maybe a half dozen, roosting and pecking on something or other floating outside the break at South Garbage. When curiosity got the better of him, Corriea called out to the only other surfer who was in the vicinity.
William Dostal lived in Loma Portal then. He was a good ten years older than Corriea. He was the closer of the two, so he paddled over. The seagulls scattered at his approach. He took a look at what the birds had been using for a perch, hollered something back in Corriea’s general direction, then turned and paddled in to shore.
Sunset Cliffs abut the Pacific in a rutted sandstone face made unpredictable as all hell by wave and weather action. Chunks of it break free and drop into the sea without notice. Signs warn visitors to observe the heart-achingly romantic expanse of Pacific Ocean from behind salt-rusted guard rails and chains. People get married here. People fall to their deaths here.
The surf breaks along the cliffs all have cryptic names imparted by the locals: Luscomb’s, Subs, Pillars, Needles, Rockslide, No Surf. And, so designated for the stink of rotting kelp, South (and North) Garbage, which lie at the foot of Sunset Cliffs Regional Park. That same Friday morning, an O.B. lifer named Jimmy Johnson had surfed Garbage. When he heard the news about what they found out there later in the afternoon, he renamed the break and started calling it Torso’s until someone in a bar got offended and told him he was in bad taste and to shut the hell up.
On this particular afternoon, there was little surf, which explains why the often jam-packed break at South Garbage was vacant. With the small sets going flat and the evening glass-off coming, Corriea stayed out there for a few more minutes until he too saw in astonishing and horrendous detail what had spooked Dostal: a lifeless body floated up the face of a swell, crested, and slid down the back side of it. It was Friday April 15, 1994.
The first call came in to lifeguard communications at 3:18 p.m. A bystander named Andrew Todd said something about a couple of surfers almost straight out from Point Loma Nazarene University. They appeared to be holding a body. John Liddle and Tom Thayer rolled from the Ocean Beach station at 3:19 p.m. Bruce Robinson and Joe Wade deployed from the lifeguard dock in Mission Beach in a rescue vessel. Lt. Frank Powell and Chief Brant Bass likewise rolled from Mission Beach in separate vehicles.
Liddle and Thayer arrived at the scene at 3:24 p.m. Powell arrived three minutes later. Bass never made it; he was dispatched to another emergency while in transit. Liddle, Powell, and Thayer scanned the expanse of sea from the cliffs at the foot of Ladera Street, but saw nothing. They drove north up Sunset Cliffs Boulevard slowly, and searched all the coves and breaks along the way.
Four minutes later, Robinson and Wade powered through the kelp beds in the rescue boat. They found the victim floating face down a couple of hundred yards off the coast in line of sight of the Point Loma Nazarene athletic field. It was a woman. Except for a few bracelets, rings, and a butterfly tattoo, she was nude. Her long brown hair undulated in the cold currents. Robinson and Wade thought she might have been in her early 20s.
A second lifeguard vessel arrived at the scene to assist in the recovery. By 4:00 p.m., Rescue One was back at the dock at lifeguard headquarters at 2581 Quivira Court with a body bag. The victim was unidentified and since trauma was involved, the Medical Examiner took jurisdiction. An examiner was waiting. His name was Robert Engel.
Engel examined the remains on the deck of Rescue One. In his report, he noted that the body revealed “large, tearing type wounds with missing tissue.” Most of the right leg was gone. He estimated that the woman had not been in the water long. Not a scrap of ID or clothing was recovered with the body. Engel’s report did not specify a precise cause of death, but all involved assumed that at least one shark, and probably many more, had mauled the woman.
During the formal autopsy on Saturday April 16, the extent of the Jane Doe’s injuries told a difficult story of her final minutes. Her face was raw with scrapes and contusions and bruises. Her neck was broken. Her right leg was sheared off mid-thigh. Shredded tissue and bone was all that remained of her mangled buttocks, parts of her arms, and the remaining leg. There were busted ribs, and her pelvis had been pulled apart by brute force. She bled internally, and then she drowned. In other words, she was alive when whatever it was inflicted all this damage.
By the end of the procedure, given what remains he had to work with, San Diego Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne knew a lot about the victim, everything except who she was and why exactly she’d been in the ocean naked and alone.
“We were watching the 10 o’clock news, and they mentioned the unidentified body of a woman with a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder.” It was Saturday night, April 16, 1994. Denise Knox owned Cabrillo Stationary and Office Supply on Newport Avenue in the heart of Ocean Beach in 1994. She had an employee that fit the description. The girl with the butterfly tattoo had not shown up for work on Friday or Saturday. “My husband and I just looked at each other.” Knox dialed the police. They routed her call through to the office of the medical examiner.
“I talked to the coroner for about half an hour.” Knox gave a general description of the woman. He pressed for personal details; there’d been dozens of bogus calls already. Knox told him that the woman in question didn’t shave under her arms. “And she didn’t shave her legs either. And the coroner goes, ‘Okay. Do you think you can come out here?’ And I said, ‘Why? Do you think you have a match?’” Knox called her shop manager, and together they drove to the morgue in Kearny Mesa. They arrived after midnight during the early morning hours of Sunday April 17.