Authorities Mystified Over Fatal Attack
WILDWOOD, Fla. (AP) _ Grace Eberhart liked to stroll along Lake Serenity early in the morning to get away from her problems: recent surgery for cancer and her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease.
Early Sunday, her neighbors were horrified to see the 70-year-old woman’s nightgown-clad body in the lake’s murky water, in the jaws of a huge alligator.
How Mrs. Eberhart wound up in the water in the community she and her husband, Francis, moved to nine years ago was still a mystery Tuesday.
Meanwhile, wildlife officers were trying to trap and kill a seventh alligator in the lake in efforts to recover additional portions of the woman’s body.
Mrs. Eberhart’s son, Frank Eberhart, 40, flew to Florida from his home in Delanco, N.J., after the tragedy. He said his 71-year-old father had been told only that his wife had drowned.
″We’re hoping to keep all the details from him, as much as possible,″ he said.
Mrs. Eberhart had health problems, and Chief Deputy Bill Farmer of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department said suicide had not been ruled out.
Frank Eberhart said his mother had undergone a mastectomy and recently had her bladder removed. But he said she was religious woman who would never have considered leaping into an alligator-infested lake to end her life.
The medical examiner’s office said Mrs. Eberhart died from a broken neck caused by an alligator bite to the face. Her left hand and arm were found in the stomach of a 9-foot alligator that was trapped and killed Sunday night.
Since then, six other alligators have been killed and their stomach contents examined, but her right arm had not been recovered by late Tuesday.
Capt. Gary Phelps of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission said the absence of bite marks and scratches to the lower part of the woman’s body indicated she was in water up to her neck when she was attacked.
″There just are no signs at all that she was dragged into the water by a gator,″ Phelps said. ″There is no evidence of her falling or slipping in the water.″
Pointing to one overgrown end of a series of narrow waterways that form the manmade lake, Phelps said, ″My hypothesis is that she went in the water here, for whatever reason I can’t begin to speculate.″
The water was heavily roiled from the sandy bottom in that area and one of the woman’s white sandals was found there, Phelps said.
The body was spotted about 50 yards from that spot by Jack and Beverly Horrocks. From their living room window, they saw the body being fought over by two alligators.
″Jack said he thought he saw an arm,″ Mrs. Horrocks said. ″We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. So I got the binoculars and went to the window, then saw it was a body.″
At the same time, another neighbor, Frank Champagne, was helping Francis Eberhart look for his wife.
″He came to the door and said she was missing; he couldn’t find her,″ Champagne said. ″We were looking for an hour or so when Jack Horrocks called me over and said a gator had someone in the water.″