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Chute to Kill

Looking west from this tiny airstrip tucked into the northwest corner of Palm Beach County, the horizon appears as a long, flat-topped ridge stretching north and south as far as the eye can see. At its closest, it approaches to within three-quarters of a mile of the airstrip's lone runway; at a height of 20 feet, it is the highest ground for miles. Actually a levee, the ridge was built to protect the nearby cane fields from the immensity of Lake Okeechobee beyond.

On October 23 this ridge was the stage above which the penultimate moment of Mike McDonald's life played to an audience of one. "When he reached the levee," recalls Harald Dahl, the lone spectator to the day's drama, "that's when I knew he was in trouble."

The two men, McDonald and Dahl, were hardly strangers; rather, they shared a particularly close connection: McDonald was a skydiver, and Dahl was the rigger who had packed his chute. McDonald had already jumped once that morning. But now, on his second skydive of the day, he had, in the jargon of the sport, "lost the field." That is to say, he had drifted too far downwind of his intended target, a circle of short-mown grass next to where Dahl stood watching.

As he crossed the levee, beyond which lay nothing but 730 square miles of shallow lake water studded with rocks, McDonald suddenly heeled into a 180-degree turn and faced back to the shore. "He was about 10 to 15 meters in the air," recalls Dahl, and facing an increasingly strong, gusting east wind that made the target as inaccessible as the moon. To Dahl it seemed as if McDonald was uncertain of what to do next, which way to turn. It was his 14th skydive overall but his very first solo jump.

Then, as Dahl watched, McDonald heeled again and rode the wind westward, out over the waves. Just before losing sight of the diminishing chute, Dahl saw it swerve left, as if McDonald were trying to avoid something, then swerve right again. Finally it disappeared altogether.

From the spot where Dahl witnessed McDonald's last jump, it's only a short walk in the opposite direction to the tiny office that serves as business headquarters of Skydive Palm Beach.

Today, two months after McDonald's death, the office is cluttered with the mementos of a lifetime spent skydiving: manuals, plaques, certificates, framed photographs of skydivers with arched backs linked in weblike formations. At the moment, however, owner Pat Dodgin's mind is far from the trappings of his own success that surround him. Now he's leaning back in his desk chair trying to figure out how he landed in such a God-awful mess. The echoes of McDonald's death continue to reverberate throughout Dodgin's world.

In an industry that averages 32 deaths a year nationwide (out of approximately 3.25 million jumps), McDonald's fatal plunge was the third in only 11 months at Skydive Palm Beach, says Glenn Bangs, director of safety and training for the United States Parachute Association (USPA), the industry's national accrediting body. That gives Dodgin the distinction of being owner and operator of what is statistically the most lethal skydiving business in the entire 350-member USPA.

It isn't that Skydive Palm Beach is one of the largest skydiving businesses; with an average 12,000 to 15,000 jumps per year, the company is actually on the smaller end of the scale. Many "drop zones," as they're called, do more than 50,000 jumps a year. Air Adventures of Clewiston, a medium-size drop zone in nearby Hendry County, does 20,000 a year.

Worse for Dodgin than the fatality statistics is the fact that he is now facing both an impending civil lawsuit and a criminal investigation stemming from McDonald's death -- not to mention open criticism from one of the most respected veterans in the world of professional skydiving.

The core of the controversy concerns the question of whether McDonald should have been allowed to make his first solo jump upwind of a lake on a day when other nearby skydiving operations, including one only 20 miles away, had shut down because of gusting winds. Bob Parks, the attorney representing McDonald's family, promises to take legal action and make Dodgin's life harder in the coming months: "[Skydive Palm Beach's] main line of defense appears to be the release that [McDonald] signed. If we lose at summary judgment, we're going to appeal it all the way up the line, because there appears to be unquestionable negligence involved."

"Are you nervous?" the tall, thin man asks with a smirk.He's squinting into the eyepiece of a video camera that's pointed at a fully outfitted, middle-aged skydiver-to-be standing rather stiffly in the center of the Skydive Palm Beach hangar. "Anxious?"

The jumpsuited man says he's not, though his grin is perhaps a little rigid at the moment.

The formalities over, the skydiver, his two instructors (one of them Dodgin) and the cameraman all step outside and pile into a metallic gray, single-wing Cessna 182 that's been idling on the runway. The pilot, Theo Nulden, an unshaven fellow wearing only cutoffs and a sleeveless shirt, flashes a goofy leer at the camera before slapping on a pair of headphones.

The space behind Nulden's seat is so tiny that the four skydivers have to curl in each others' laps on the floor to fit in the plane. Their knees are pulled up to their chins. After the last man barely manages to squeeze into place, the doorless plane begins trundling down the runway, slowly picking up speed, the jumpsuits of its human cargo flapping in the breeze.

Such a sport seemed tailor-made for a guy like Mike McDonald.
His friends say McDonald liked to laugh, live dangerously, ride his Harley, and suck all the excitement he could from life. He was a blue-collar type, a Marine who'd served in Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts and a battlefield commission before returning stateside to become a Miami cop. Today he lies buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

"As a police officer, he was the type of guy who sought the tough assignments, the tough beats," says Miami attorney John Spiegel, who graduated from the police academy in the same class with McDonald 26 years ago and worked alongside him for many years. "When we graduated together, he convinced me to come with him and request assignment in Liberty City." He was the kind of person who thrived on danger.

So skydiving held a natural appeal for McDonald, who got his first taste of the sport when he organized a group skydiving outing two years ago for a bunch of buddies from work. Last August he organized another trip, and it was then that he convinced Juan de Castillo, one of his partners in the media relations department of Miami-Dade police, to sign up with him for a training course leading to certification as USPA class "A" skydivers.

Class "A" -- the basic level of skydiver certification -- simply means the skydiver is recognized by the USPA as having the ability to pack his or her own main parachute and to skydive without instructors. There are a number of methods of skydiving training that the USPA recognizes as leading to an "A" license. Students can progress through a series of static-line jumps, or they may choose "instructor-assisted deployment" training, in which an instructor deploys the chutes.

McDonald and de Castillo followed a program known as the Accelerated Free-Fall (AFF) progression method. AFF training comprises seven levels, each of which a student is required to master before moving on to the next. Level one, for example, includes such basics as use of the altimeter, exit procedures, free-fall body position, and canopy check. Level two focuses on awareness, stability, and coordinated movement, and so on.

The Skydive Palm Beach AFF course cost each man approximately $1100 and involved seven levels of instructor-assisted training followed by a series of solo jumps to accumulate experience and free-fall time. (Before earning a USPA class "A" license, a trainee must document a minimum of 20 solo jumps -- three of which must contain controlled free-falls lasting at least 40 seconds -- and an accumulated five minutes of total free-fall time.)

"We both loved it," de Castillo says. "Mike loved the thrill, the feeling of freedom. We were up there nearly every weekend through September and October." The usual plan was to drive up on Friday or -- work schedule permitting -- Thursday night and check into the Okeechobee Inn in nearby Belle Glade. That made it easier to feed the skydiving addiction first thing in the morning.

By October 23 McDonald was up to level seven, the last level, involving "diving exits, front loops, and sequence of maneuvers," according to the Skydiver's Information Manual, published by the USPA. After that, he would be able to begin soloing and advancing toward his eventual graduation from student status. As usual, he drove up to Belle Glade on Thursday night, checking into the Okeechobee Inn and dining, as always, on down-home barbecue at Fat Boy's Barbecue.

He seemed to be in a good mood, recalls Paula Chaparro, general manager of Okeechobee Inn, but that was nothing new. "He was just the same sweet Mike. Real friendly and upbeat like always." Because of his work schedule that week, de Castillo couldn't join McDonald that Thursday night and made tentative plans to join him either the next day or Saturday. In honor of McDonald's impending graduation from student status, however, de Castillo presented him with a T-shirt he'd ordered from a skydiving Website. The shirt showed a bunch of cartoon skydivers crashing and banging in Keystone Kop fashion along with the inscription, "Even a Bad Day Skydiving Is Better Than a Good Day at Work." McDonald was wearing it on his last jump.

Thursday, October 23, dawned cloudy and windy with a threat of rain. It wasn't the sort of weather that most people like to jump in, and McDonald was the only client at the airport early that morning. On his first skydive, he successfully performed the maneuvers required of a level-seven AFF student. Finally he had passed.

Not, however, with flying colors. On his landing McDonald had missed the target by about 100 yards, landing downwind on the other side of the runway. "He had gotten too far downwind and couldn't make up the distance," Dahl says.

So before McDonald went up again, Dodgin says he had a talk with him. "I told him to be cautious and stay upwind of the target." It was just a way of saying: Don't let the wind push you to where you can't make it back to the target. McDonald's instructor that day, Bill O'Connor, also wrote a note in the skydiver's log book to the effect that McDonald needed to stay upwind so as not to miss the target.

Dodgin wasn't unduly concerned, he says. Unlike the once-popular, round-canopy parachutes, modern ramjet chutes of the type McDonald was wearing create about 20 mph of forward thrust on their own. It is this thrust that allows a skydiver to steer the ramjet chute by pulling on lines, called risers, that are attached to each end of the canopy. Guy Manos, one of the most sought-after stunt skydivers in Hollywood and owner of Skydive Miami says, "It basically acts like the wing of an airplane."

As the morning continued and McDonald prepared for his second jump of the day, the wind apparently began to pick up. According to National Weather Service records, the wind at Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), 30 miles to the east, measured 13 mph with gusts to 23 mph at 10 a.m. One hour later it had risen to 17 mph with gusts to 24 mph. By noon the wind at PBI had risen to 23 mph with gusts to 26 mph -- and it was blowing straight in from the east, occasionally swinging around to the northeast. A weather station at West Palm Beach showed similar readings for the morning of October 23. At 10 a.m. the wind was 18 mph gusting to 26; at 11 it was 14 gusting to 23; and at noon it was 17 gusting to 24.

Local wind speed matters because the USPA sets a maximum allowable ground wind speed of 14 mph "for all solo student and novice skydivers," according to the 1998 Skydiver's Information Manual.

Just before the plane took off at 11:30 a.m., carrying McDonald on what would be his first solo jump, Dodgin says the ground wind speed at the landing target area was 14 mph, as measured by Dahl using a hand-held device. McDonald left the plane at 5000 feet, approximately a mile upwind of the landing zone. McDonald opened his chute at 4000 to 3500 feet. He missed the landing target by more than a mile.

According to Capt. Eddie Boswell of the Pahokee Fire Department, who piloted the Pahokee rescue boat on that day, the wind was blowing hard enough to whip up white water on the lake.

What particularly bothers Palm Beach Sheriff's Office (PBSO) Det. Robert Quinones, who is assisting in the investigation, is the fact that Dahl ran three-quarters of a mile to the levee, climbed its summit, spent some time scouring the lake surface for signs of McDonald, and then ran back to the hangar before finally dialing 911. "That probably wasted half an hour, at least, right there," Quinones says.

Squatting on the floor of the Skydive Palm Beach hangar, busily repacking a reserve chute that had saved a skydiver from "bouncing" the day before, Harald Dahl's mind is at the moment far away. He is recalling a girl he used to know back in his home country of Norway before he got really serious about skydiving, moved to the United States, and studied to become a full-time, FAA-certified parachute rigger.

The girl he's recalling was also a skydiver -- in fact, she was the one who first got him interested in the sport. Then one day "she was standing at the door when her chute deployed prematurely," he says, describing how the unexpectedly open chute dragged his friend out of the cabin door. "The chute went on one side of the [plane's horizontal] stabilizer, and she went on the other side. She was decapitated."

It's actually a fairly common way to die in skydiving: The records of the National Transportation Safety Board are replete with blood-curdling accounts of incidents in which planes are damaged and sometimes even brought down by the force of impact that occurs when a skydiver's body -- sucked out of the cabin by the accidental premature deployment of a parachute -- collides with the tail of the airplane.

Among the professionals who understand the inherent dangers of this sport, it's a given: "You're going to lose some friends," Dahl says.

And that, at bottom, is the core argument of many of Dodgin's defenders. "Hey, if you go skydiving, you know what you're getting into," says Manos, who has often jumped with Dodgin. "It's a personal-responsibility thing." And, indeed, it's difficult to see how anyone could go so far as to jump out of an airplane without realizing it's dangerous.

Here's a little-known fact about skydiving: In an age when even the manner in which an airline serves in-flight peanuts is coming under the scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there is absolutely no governmental regulation of your main parachute -- how it's used, when it's used, or whether it's used at all.

In fact, "if you felt like it, you could jump out of an airplane using your pocket handkerchief as your main chute," says Dan Poynter, former chair of the USPA board and an expert witness in more than 100 skydiving lawsuits.

You can also jump out of an airplane barefoot and bareheaded or, alternatively, with your feet strapped to a ski board. Those two methods, respectively, are how the previous two Skydive Palm Beach fatalities chose to jump.

Omar Lozada was one of those who liked to skydive barefoot and without a helmet. Lozada, a 27-year-old native of Venezuela, was an experienced skydiver with 249 jumps to his credit. But on November 20, 1997, his luck ran out. Skydiving with a group of friends at Skydive Palm Beach, Lozada was performing a maneuver in which he hurled himself face-first toward the ground when he collided with another skydiver, Victor Covone. Lozada hit his head on Covone's hip. Disoriented or unconscious, he failed to open his chute before hitting the ground.

Lozada could very well still be alive if he had either worn a helmet (which skydivers call a "frap-hat") or been using a relatively new safety feature, the Cypress, which is basically a reserve parachute that automatically pops open if a diver's speed doesn't decrease close to the ground. Dodgin had both frap-hats and Cypresses in the shop. Why didn't Lozada use one or the other or both? "I don't know. He just didn't want to," Dodgin says.

One week later Skydive Palm Beach saw another of its skydivers die. James H. Darby, age 45, who ran a food concession at the Palm Beach County Glades Airport (where Skydive Palm Beach is located) was killed while skydiving with a ski board. During free-fall, one of Darby's fellow skydivers tried to "dock" with Darby's board, a maneuver that involves a brief touch of the board, followed by a quick release. The docking, however, sent Darby into an uncontrollable spin. Although Darby's reserve chute did open, he apparently died in mid-dive of a heart attack.

PBSO deputies say they found no evidence of negligence in Darby's or Lozada's death. And, as Dodgin points out, there's no specific law against jumping without a helmet or without shoes -- or without clothes, for that matter. If he were to prohibit unhelmeted skydiving at his drop zone, for example, "Lozada would have just gotten in his car and driven 20 miles down the road to the next drop zone," Dodgin claims.

Experts say it's not inherently dangerous to skydive near open bodies of water. "Power lines and trees are more dangerous than a lake," says Manos. "You can land in water and not even get your hair wet, if you land into the wind like you're supposed to. Look at Sebastian and Titusville -- they've got drop zones right on the ocean. Hell, there's even one in Key West." And Dodgin says he didn't really have much of a choice whether to operate near a lake or not; this was the only airport concession he could find when he started the business two years ago.

Dodgin does have safety standards, but he applies them on a case-by-case basis. He says, for instance, that he won't allow skydivers to use the old military-style round parachutes. The reason? They're hard to steer, he says, "and that could be dangerous right next to a lake."

But so could a gusting east wind. "If the wind was 15 mph, and he was going with the wind, then he probably hit the water at 35 mph, because the chute itself is going about 20 mph," speculates Poynter, the expert witness on skydiving. If that was the case, McDonald could very well have suffered what Manos calls a "face splat, which would be about the same as a wipeout by a barefoot water-skier."

The gusty wind prompted at least one other skydiving operation in the area -- the one located closest to Skydive Palm Beach -- to shut down its business. "I looked out, and it was just too windy to jump," says Caleb Esmiol, owner of Air Adventures in Clewiston, located less than 20 miles away from Skydive Palm Beach to the west. "I closed for the day."

Told of the weather data from PBI (where the wind was blowing at 23 mph with gusts up to 26 mph at noon), the USPA's Glenn Bangs says it doesn't matter what wind conditions were like in other places. The only thing that counts is the wind speed measured at ground level at McDonald's drop zone. As for anyone who would criticize Dodgin's decision to open, "you have to consider the source. Pat Dodgin is an experienced skydiver, and he's the one standing on the drop zone measuring the wind."

But he's also the owner of a business that needs customers to survive in a competitive industry. "It's all based on the money, how bad... you want the money," says Esmiol of Air Adventures. "We've got so many good days in Florida, you don't need to put somebody up there when the weather's questionable. Sure, you're going to piss people off, but they're usually the ones who don't understand what the wind can do."

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the decision to let McDonald jump that day is Ted Strong. The owner of Strong Enterprises, a DeLand manufacturer of skydiving equipment, Strong has been skydiving for more than 30 years and remains "a giant of the industry," according to Manos. He owes his credibility in the industry to a combination of decades of experience and a commitment to the concept of self-regulation. "Ted's opinion would be one I'd trust," says Bangs.

Strong's opinion is this: The decision to allow McDonald to jump on October 23 was flat wrong. "Sometimes you've got to use your common sense and say, 'It's too windy,'" he says. "And on that day, I believe the weather conditions were too windy. When you've got a wind gusting from 15 to 20 mph, that's too windy for a student jumper -- even one with 13 jumps. Even if the USPA regulations would allow such a jump, sometimes the people who know need to protect the people who don't know."

To Strong the fact that the skydiving industry is largely self-regulated means professional skydivers have a special obligation to ensure that unsafe operations aren't protected. Several years ago, in fact, Strong went so far as to petition the FAA to revoke the rigging certificate of a Georgia skydiving instructor who may have been involved in the death of a student through the use of unsafe equipment. Even though the instructor was never prosecuted, Strong was successful in getting his certificate revoked. "The skydiving world is pretty close-knit," he says. "If you end up hurting people, the news spreads very fast."

As he faces scrutiny from all sides, Pat Dodgin is certain of one thing: "Mike wouldn't sue me. His family might. But Mike wouldn't." Over the course of McDonald's training, the two men developed a bond of sorts, he says, one based largely on their shared love of Harley-Davidsons, thrills, and adventure. Reaching on top of the file cabinet, he pulls out a ball cap with the logo "Miami-Dade Motorcycle Unit" and a plaque bearing the inscription "Metro-Dade Police Department Certificate of Appreciation, presented to Pat Dodgin, August 28, 1998." Both, he says, were gifts from McDonald.

"You know," Dodgin says, "it was devastating to me personally to lose a friend. But I can't take the human element out of skydiving. People get hurt skiing, too. What are you going to do about it, shut down all the ski lodges?"

He has more than just friendship as evidence that McDonald would never condone a lawsuit. Before McDonald got near an airplane, he signed an extensive, three-page contract, the second sentence of which reads, "Specifically, I understand that parachuting is a dangerous activity in which there is a substantial risk of injury and death." The sentiment is repeated in the third-to-last sentence: "I understand that, even in the best of conditions, parachuting activities are extremely dangerous, and injuries and deaths occur." If that's not enough to make the point, the contract drives it home with a shift to all-capital letters: "I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY OR DAMAGE TO OR LOSS OF MY PROPERTY WHILE PARTICIPATING IN THE ACTIVITIES CONTEMPLATED IN THIS AGREEMENT, INCLUDING THE RISK OF ACTIVE OR PASSIVE NEGLIGENCE BY ANY RELEASEE(S)."

To attorney Bob Parks, even a "kitchen-sink contract, where they throw in everything" shouldn't be a license for negligence. "We're going to fight it. We'll see," he says, adding that a lawsuit will likely be filed within the month. McDonald's widow, Jackie, declined an interview request from New Times.

Such contracts are difficult but not impossible to defeat, says Poynter, but nationally it's becoming more difficult to overcome contracts written in such plain and clear language.

But beyond all that, Dodgin also has what he believes is a rock-solid defense that doesn't need to rely on legal technicalities for effectiveness: He doesn't think he or any of his employees did anything wrong. "Mike screwed up," he says. "That's all there is to say about it. Mike knew what he was supposed to do. He was specifically told to not overshoot his landing. He went ahead and did it anyway. That's what happened. That's all that happened."

Before his fatal jump, McDonald "was talked to extremely forcefully about staying upwind," Dodgin says. "For some unknown reason, Mike decided to try to make a landing further downwind than he should have. Why? I can't answer that. Sometimes you'll never know exactly what was going through a jumper's head."

Poynter agrees with much of this. "Sometimes students do unusual things, and even they can't tell you why they did it. Maybe he wanted to go swimming. Maybe he got really mixed up. Maybe he committed suicide -- we have those from time to time, you know."

But maybe he wasn't experienced enough to handle the gusting winds? "Yeah, it could be that, too."

Each USPA-member drop zone has a safety and training officer appointed by the USPA regional director. For any incident that involves serious injury, the officer is required to fill out a report describing the circumstances and file it with the USPA. Any skydiving business found to have conducted its operations negligently faces revocation of its USPA membership.

At Skydive Palm Beach, that officer is Dodgin, and his report for McDonald's death attributed the incident to "jumper error," according to Bangs. (Describing the report as the private property of the USPA, Bangs declined to provide a copy of Dodgin's report to New Times.) "The skydiver swerved out over the lake," Bangs says.

As to the inherent conflict of interest in placing responsibility for investigating a skydiving accident in the hands of the one with the most to gain or lose from its results, Bangs says, "I agree to a certain point." However, he says, the safety officer is normally assumed to be the person most familiar with the circumstances of any accident and so most capable of producing an accurate report.

It is in part this inherent conflict of interest that is spurring a drive to amend the Federal Aviation Regulations in order to give the agency more oversight with regard to skydive fatalities, says Bob Barton, manager of the FAA general aviation operations branch in Washington, D.C. "We're finding now that with some of the accidents, we would like to have more data," he says. "And we'd like to take a closer look and see if we need to regulate the industry a little more closely."

If the FAA wants accident data, one fertile source might be the month of April 1998 at Skydive Palm Beach. On April 9 of that year, four days after the marine rescue boat of the Pahokee Fire Department pulled three Skydive Palm Beach skydivers out of Lake Okeechobee and two days before it would rescue two more, Pahokee Fire Chief Gary Burroughs sat down and drafted a letter to Pat Dodgin.

It has become necessary to address a couple of issues which are impacting the City of Pahokee Fire Rescue as a result of your business. One is a safety issue regarding the wearing of a flotation device for those person(s) that have and may well continue ending up in Lake Okeechobee due to the proximity of that body of water in relation to your drop site. Recently a few more minutes may have cost someone their life due to not wearing a flotation device. If someone does survive a bad landing on the water, they may very well still not survive due to injuries and not being able to keep themselves afloat. I would require the use of a flotation device due to the liability.

Burroughs went on to warn Dodgin that the City of Pahokee was thinking about charging him or his customers for future lake rescues. "You do have the alternative of providing lake pickup yourself if you so desire," he wrote. Today Burroughs says, "We never got any response to that letter. We never heard back from them at all. But after that, the calls stopped coming in -- at least until that last guy, McDonald. I don't know this, but I think they started using their own boat." (By the time this question was put to Dodgin, he said his insurers had instructed him not to comment further.)

The controversy comes at a bad time for Dodgin, who is in the midst of negotiating the possible sale of his business to a Wellington-based holding corporation.

Tom Keesee, president of Halo Holdings Inc., the potential buyer, is careful to emphasize that any purchase would not include legal liabilities. Although it would include the name "Skydive Palm Beach," Keesee says he probably won't use it. Also, he says he plans to use only planes equipped with global positioning systems (GPS) to reduce the chances that a skydiver will be allowed to exit the plane too far downwind.

For his part Dodgin suspects that part of his current problem stems from the fact that McDonald was a cop. The investigator Dodgin's own insurance company hired claims that when one of the witnesses to McDonald's jump was questioned by PBSO Sgt. David Carhart, "The first thing out of [Carhart's] mouth was, 'I want to talk to you about the cop they killed.'"

That investigator, David Miller, declined to answer questions for this article or provide the name of the witness to whom Dodgin spoke. Carhart, meanwhile, says the charge is "wholly untrue. That whole conversation with that young lady was tape-recorded, so I know what was said and what was not said."

Mike McDonald was found underwater, about a mile offshore, tangled in the lines of his chute, the canopy of which was the only thing visible above the waves. According to Carhart, he was not wearing a flotation device, although that was listed on the Skydive Palm Beach jump-log checklist. "He may have inflated it and then lost it," Carhart says.

Captain Boswell of the Pahokee Fire Department doesn't think McDonald's body would have been found if it hadn't been for the PBSO helicopter called in to join the search. "The waves were getting up out there. It was real hard to see anything."

Because he couldn't see a body from the boat, Boswell was forced to maneuver upwind, cut his engine, and drift to the chute. By the time they brought McDonald's body to shore, the TV news stations were there. Footage of his covered body being loaded into a hearse played on the evening news.

By this time Juan de Castillo was on the scene. He'd gotten a call from the Skydive Palm Beach receptionist shortly after McDonald turned up missing and drove up to see what he could do to help. When his friend's body was found, he went back to the airstrip hangar, retrieved McDonald's car keys, and checked the vehicle. There on the front seat was a bottle of champagne, evidently awaiting his own arrival and the celebration that would surely ensue.

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address:

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