A weak breeze was pushing in from the south, rippling the broad boulevard of water as it caught the midmorning sun. The canal, wide as a football field, ran north to south, slashing an engineered course through the unruly tangle of low-lying bush in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Scott Harris, a 34-year-old maintenance worker, was coasting along the east bank in an airboat, killing weeds with a hose full of poison. Decked out in a protective suit, rubber boots, glasses, and earmuffs, he was deep in the sawgrass, about a mile north of Alligator Alley and 45 minutes by car west of Fort Lauderdale. The deafening whir of the propellers overwhelmed all sound.
He looked ahead, eyeing where the wind was carrying the chemicals. Then he saw it: a floating black trash bag.
There's always junk in the canals, he thought. Maybe it's a bag of clothes.
Harris cut the engines and poled over to the bag using a 12-foot cypress stick he kept on hand for pushing off the bank. When the trash bag was in range, he tore through the black plastic with the stick's end. Inside was another layer of garbage bag. Harris ripped it open, uncovering a third. Something is wrong, he thought, laying aside the pole and hopping to the bow to rip the final layer with his hands.
Inside he saw a back pants pocket made of dark corduroy. It was a bag of clothes, he assumed. But as Harris looked closer, a flash of skin caught his eye. He was looking at a corpse curled in the fetal position.
Frantic, he pushed off. The airboat drifted a couple hundred yards. He dialed on his cell phone. No reception. He dialed again. A 911 operator answered. What seemed like hours passed. Finally, police arrived.
"I could have easily overlooked the bag, but I'm a Christian man. I believe God wanted the bag to be found," says Harris, who still has nightmares. "Now, if I see a bag that I can't see through, I don't touch it. I don't want to find more human remains."
The body was later identified as 17-year-old Marissa Karp. She had been shot through the left breast, and her face was rouged with bruises. She'd been dead only 12 hours when Harris (whose name has been changed because he fears gang retribution) opened the trash bag.
More than a month later, after police identified the body, Gary Karp received the news about his daughter. Over the next decade, he would make a superhuman effort to track down her killer, waging every battle possible to keep the case from going cold.
He would amass wheelbarrows' worth of documents and badger cops in two countries until they finally followed up on thousands of hours of his detective work. Marissa, he showed beyond a reasonable doubt, fell victim to a Bahamian drug crew that had left a string of bodies across South Florida.
His dogged work provides insight not only into the power of a father's love for his daughter but also into cartels not from Colombia or Mexico, but from a seemingly lazy collection of islands just 120 miles east of South Florida. Big rip-offs, brutal beatings, and murder of innocents were all part of their modus operandi.
Now 59 years old and disabled by a massive stroke, Gary regrets much from the years his daughter was alive. But in a halting voice, he expresses pride that Marissa's murderer might soon face arrest. "I wanted to be able to say I may have failed when my daughter was alive, but I was able to get justice for her after she was gone."
Despite his almost 40 years in South Florida, a New York glaze still covers Gary's words and bearing. He's quick with his opinion, has a wise-guy wit, and once he lights on something he wants, he doesn't give in. He exhibits surprising intensity for a guy who stands only five-foot-two and looks out on the world with soft drooping features and an awkward smile. "People love to hate me and hate to love me," he says when describing himself. "The last thing you want to do is tell me what I can't do."
Gary was born in 1953 in Queens to a Jewish family. His father worked as a mechanic for American Airlines, and his mom was an accountant for the Federal Aviation Administration. When he was about 6 years old, the family uprooted for North Woodmere on Long Island, where Gary grew up on a steady diet of '50s American truisms — cops were your friends, the courts knew right from wrong, the government was there to help. "Truth, justice, the American way, Superman, and all the rest," he says.
As a teen, he worked as a clerk at Waldbaum's, a local supermarket chain. One day Gary's eye hooked on a girl with curly black hair and brown eyes parking her car in the fire lane. He followed her through the aisles and learned her name was Susan. They dated, and when Gary moved with his parents to Florida in 1972, she followed.