Gator probably killed swimmer in Florida spring

BY ELYSSA CHERNEY
ORLANDO SENTINEL / TNS

ORLANDO – A dead man pulled from the waters of Blue Spring State Park on Monday appeared to have suffered wounds consistent with an alligator attack, according to a report from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.

A medical examiner has begun the autopsy on James Okkerse, 61. If it’s determined he was killed by an alligator it would be the first in the state since 2007, according to wildlife officials.

Okkerse, who moved to Florida from Michigan, has been swimming at Blue Spring for 20 years and was in great physical shape, family members said by phone. All the park rangers knew the retiree, said his cousin, John Lommerse.

“After bringing Okkerse’s body to shore, it was determined Florida Fish and Wildlife would assume the investigation since there was obvious trauma to Okkerse’s body consistent with accounts of an alligator attack,” a sheriff’s office incident report said.

Spotted and shot
Wildlife officers saw Okkerse floating face-down Monday morning near the shores of the park’s swimming area after receiving reports that he may have drowned, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The alligator, spotted nearby, was shot and killed because it posed a threat to park visitors.

Alligator sightings at the Orange City park, best known for manatee viewing during the winter, prompted FWC to close the swimming area last Sunday as it searched for the animal.

Few fatalities
Florida’s last fatal alligator bite occurred in 2007 while a man was swimming across a pond in West Miami, trying to evade police. Since then, the state has enjoyed the longest period in recent records without fatal alligator-human encounters.

Jeff Woolfenden, a contracted alligator trapper for FWC, said it’s remarkable no one has been killed in so long, even as development encroaches on areas inhabited by the large lizards.

“That’s really good considering how many alligators we have,” he said. “Go to any body of water and shine a flashlight.”

According to FWC statistics, there have been 22 fatal alligator bites since 1948. In the same time period, there have been 338 non-fatal alligator bites – all unprovoked.

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