December 11, 1998 was a routine workday for the crew of the Linda-E. Hours before the sun had broken the Lake Michigan horizon, Scott Matta, Warren Olson Jr. and Leif Weborg, the boat’s owner, stood at a fishing dock along Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River, their hands wrapped around coffee mugs, their breath turning to steam in […]
December 11, 1998 was a routine workday for the crew of the Linda-E. Hours before the sun had broken the Lake Michigan horizon, Scott Matta, Warren Olson Jr. and Leif Weborg, the boat’s owner, stood at a fishing dock along Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River, their hands wrapped around coffee mugs, their breath turning to steam in the pre-dawn air. The three men pulled a few supplies from Weborg’s fish shed, climbed into his blue-and-white pickup and headed north to Port Washington, where the Linda-E. was moored.
The fishing boat cleared the piers of Port Washington’s harbor by 5:15 a.m., leaving in its wake the landmark Smith Bros. fish shanty along the port’s channel. Loaded with ice, 100 pounds of coal for the furnace and several dozen plastic fish crates, the boat motored southeast toward two miles of nets anchored in the Inner Grounds, a spot five miles off of the Mequon shoreline that the crew fished regularly.
Weborg and his crew fished exclusively for Smith Bros. Foodservice in Port Washington, which guaranteed a market for their daily catch of chubs. It was a good arrangement for the fishermen, a good arrangement for the fish company. On an average day, the Linda-E. would sell 1,000 pounds of silvery chubs to Smith Bros. at 75 cents a pound.
Fishing out of Port Washington was less competitive than out of Milwaukee. In fact, the Linda-E. and Weborg’s second boat, the Oliver H. Smith, were the only two remaining fish tugs to sail out of the Port. The boats were well-known in town, romanticized reminders of bygone days when Port Washington had been a thriving fishing center.
Contrary to the Hollywood images of quaint fishing villages and watercolor horizons, commercial fishing is hardly a glamorous occupation. It’s a job typified by long hours – dawn until dark – and dirty, taxing work. The inside of a fish tug is a bare, steel container with few comfort conveniences, stifling hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter. Rough seas can throw a crewman around like a rag doll, tossing him against iron walls below, even hurling him overboard through an open service door. Those familiar with the work count commercial fishing as one of the most perilous jobs around, subject to sudden storms, on-board fires and collisions with floating debris or other vessels.
The crew members of the Linda-E. had seen their share of storms. Since he was a boy, Weborg, 61, had fished from ports all along the west coast of Lake Michigan. His father, both of his grandfathers and his great-grandfather were fishermen in Gills Rock in Door County; a stretch of shoreline in Peninsula State Park is named Weborg Point. Olson, 44, was also born into a family of fishermen. He stepped onto his first boat when he was 5 and worked with Weborg for the better part of two and a half decades, starting when he was in high school in Marinette. Even Matta, the youngest of the three at 32, had more than 11 years of commercial fishing under his belt.
December 11 was the end of the work week for the three-man crew, a Friday two weeks before Christmas Day. As the boat reached a white buoy marking the “gang” of nets lashed together below, the morning was shaping up to be crystal-clear day, a “blueberry day,” in the words of one Wisconsin fisherman, sunny and unusually warm, with temperatures nearing 50, calm seas and just a slight breeze out of the southwest.
The mild December had made for busy days on Lake Michigan, as shipping lanes remained free of ice and ports remained open. Weborg, in fact, had mentioned to a friend just a day earlier that he had seen more freighters and barges than usual on the lake.
Winter weather can be treacherous. Waves can swell to 12, 14 feet in storms. And fog and steam on the frigid water can reduce a boater’s visibility to nothing.
Yet winter was the best time for chub fishing. Chubs were more active, and the fat content of the fish increased in the months preceding spring spawning, making it easier to trap them in the narrow, diamond-shaped gaps of the monofilament gill nets.
The Linda-E. was Weborg’s winter boat. Built in 1937 by Burger Boats in Manitowoc, it measured 42 feet long, weighed 29 tons and was powered by a 150-horse diesel engine that pushed it along at a steady nine knots, about 10 mph. The Linda-E. was 10 feet shorter than Weborg’s Oliver H. Smith, the utilitarian Chevy to the Cadillac-comfortable Oliver. But with a longer keel and larger propeller, the Linda-E. handled better in rough seas. Because of its smaller size, it also was cheaper to heat. And with a steeled-over hull one inch thick, it was storm sturdy, good at smashing through ice as it ran through the harbor. Along with its gear-driven net-lifting apparatus, the boat was equipped with a ship-to-shore radio, radar, cellular phone, magnetic compass, automatic pilot, ring buoy, inflatable emergency float and three blaze-orange exposure suits.
At 9:46 a.m., Matta took the cell phone from on top of the engine box and put in a call to Smith Bros.
“We’ve got fish in the boat,” he told Bruce Rasmussen, the company foreman. “We’re about 12 miles southeast of the Port.”
The men had finished their daily “lift” and were about to reset their nets and clean the day’s catch. Matta told Rasmussen that the crew would be back to the Port Washington dock by 2:00 in the afternoon.
To Rasmussen, everything sounded normal, just another routine workday aboard the Linda-E. As he hung up, he could hear the boat’s engine rumbling in the background.
And then something terrible happened, a mystery that would go unsolved for nearly two years, casting ripples across the Great Lakes maritime community. Sometime before noon on that blueberry day, a huge barge bore down on the Linda-E. from the north, 5,000 tons of steel that came crashing down onto the boat’s starboard side, sending Leif Weborg, Warren Olson Jr. and Scott Matta 260 feet below the lake’s surface.
It was fish that brought Leif and Sherry Weborg together more than 30 years ago. Sherry was working as a waitress in a bar-and-grill in Kewaunee, serving fish fries on Friday nights. When Leif caught her eye, she made sure his portion of perch was the biggest out of the fryer.
Leif kept coming back to the bar-and-grill, and after dating for a year, the couple married in 1968, the second marriage for both. A year later, they moved to Milwaukee, settling in Bay View.
The water was Weborg’s life. After stints in the Merchant Marines and as a deck hand on a Great Lakes steamship, he bought his first fishing boat with the help of his grandfather. In 1962, Weborg bought his second boat, the Linda-E., naming it after his first wife. Years later, with two partners, he purchased the Snug Harbor landing on the South Side of Milwaukee and developed it as a successful marina for commercial vessels and pleasure crafts.
Sherry and Leif Weborg shared the same birthdays, April 5. Leif, known as “Lee” by family and friends, was older by seven years, a quiet man who, typical of his generation, often kept his thoughts and feelings to himself.
“My husband was not the type of man who would come home and tell me when something went wrong on the boat,” says Sherry. More often, he would come in from a day on the lake, eat a late dinner, plant himself in an easy chair with a brandy Old Fashioned and fall asleep with the television on.
While he spared Sherry the details of his occupational hazards, Leif made a point of calling her every day from his cell phone on the boat.
Sherry had an appointment to get her hair done on that fateful Friday morning. Possibly, she missed Lee’s call, she thought. When she didn’t hear from the Linda-E. by mid-afternoon, she called his cell phone.
There was no answer.
She called her daughter, Lori, at work. Lori Matta had called the boat to remind husband Scott that he had tickets to a Milwaukee Admirals game, but again, there was no answer.
“I didn’t think too much of it at the time,” recalls Lori. After all, as the daughter of Leif Weborg and the wife of Scott Matta, she knew the fisherman’s life close up. She had even fished on her father’s boat a few times. “I was honestly more concerned about their drives home from Port Washington than their time on the boat.”
Her husband, Scott, married into the fishing business when Weborg offered him work. A native of Queens, New York, Scott would get seasick at first when he would go out, but he grew to enjoy life on the water. When he wasn’t fishing, he devoted his spare time to his two daughters and bodybuilding at a local gym. But the more time he spent away from the boat, the more he missed it. Even when he was on vacation, he’d tell Lori how he couldn’t wait to get back on the water.
The crew members usually would call down to Milwaukee after docking to say they were on their way home. But by late afternoon, as Sherry cooked dinner and two grandchildren trimmed the Christmas tree, there was still no word.
She called Lori again.
“Something is not right here,” she said.
“Mom, we’ve got to make some phone calls,” agreed Lori.
Lori dialed Rasmussen at Smith Bros. No message from the Linda-E. since the morning phone call, he told her. Sherry, meanwhile, called Rick Smith, a friend of the crew and a maritime historian in Port Washington. She asked him to check the harbor for the men.
Smith drove to the Dry Dock bar in the Best Western along the Port’s channel; no one there had seen the three fishermen. He then drove to the North Bluff where, on a clear day, he could see all the way south to the Milwaukee skyline. But as the evening sky darkened, there was no sign of the Linda-E.
Eight o’clock approached. Sherry phoned Danny Anderson, a local fisherman whose fisherman father, Alvin, was a second cousin to Leif. Alvin had invited Leif to partner with him when the Weborgs moved to Milwaukee in 1970. He and Lee were part owners of Snug Harbor and they often vacationed together in Florida. Both Andersons knew the Linda-E.’s daily routine and regular fishing spots as well as anyone. They knew that the crew had fished the Inner Grounds that day and knew the approximate coordinates where they had set their nets.
Too much time had passed since the boat’s last contact with land. Danny told Sherry he was going to call the Coast Guard. Then he and his father drove down to the Kinnickinnic River, climbed aboard Danny’s fishing boat, the Jolene, and cruised out of the Milwaukee harbor heading north, white water churning at the stern.
A little more than an hour later, the Jolene was in the vicinity of the Linda-E.’s last known position. If the fish tug had become disabled, the Andersons reasoned, it would have drifted with the current or wind. So Danny cut the Jolene’s engine and let it ride the waves, hoping it would follow the path of the missing boat.
“I thought, hell, no problem,” says Alvin. “Lee had mechanical problems, but we’ll find him. We’ll put the radar on and we’ll find him.”
But there was nothing to be found.
“We searched all night, going around in circles,” he says. “By 3:00 in the morning, we didn’t find anything. And I thought, ‘I don’t like this. Something’s not right.’ ”
At about 4 a.m., Alvin and Danny Anderson lay down in the boat’s net box to get some rest. Neither could sleep. Two or three hours later, they fired up the boat to resume their search in the first light of day.
“There’s something more to this than a guy wants to know,” Alvin said solemnly to his son. “Don’t look for a boat anymore, Dan. Look for something else, anything else – floating on the water.”
If there had been a wreck or a fire, there would have been an oil slick or debris or dead fish or… something.
“But there wasn’t anything,” recalls Alvin. “Not a board, not a stick.… I looked out and it was like the lake had been raked clean.”
At sunrise, the Andersons spotted a white buoy. Minutes later, they spotted another, then two more. Black numbers, fishing license numbers, stenciled on the buoys identified them as the Linda-E.’s. They marked the area where the crewmen had set their nets.
Except for the four buoys, there was no trace of the boat.
Warren Olson’s older sister was driving home to Menominee, Michigan, from Oshkosh that Friday night, when a huge falling star dropped out of the sky.
“When I got home,” says Joyce Rutta, “I got a call saying the Linda-E. was missing.”
Warren Olson Jr., “Warnie” to his family, was the oldest of 10 kids. From early on, he was attached to his father’s hip. “He was a junior to the full extent,” Rutta says of her brother.
Olson was born in Port Washington, where his father fished for Smith Bros. The family moved to Marinette when he was a young boy. Marinette was once a bustling fishing village, sharing harbors with its Michigan twin, Menominee, cotton nets drying in the sun along the bay, white gulls following fish-laden boats into port. Today, the Mari-nette Marine Corp. remains a major shipyard, building ships for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. But the fishing industry is a mere shadow of its former self – the Marinette harbor overgrown with weeds, two or three fish tugs tied idle along the shore.
As a fisherman, Warnie moved back and forth between Marinette, Port Washington and Milwaukee, fishing mostly with Weborg over the years. He’d been divorced twice, and his four children lived in Milwaukee. At the time the Linda-E. disappeared, Olson was sharing an apartment in Milwaukee with his brother, Knute, and another fisherman.
Every winter, as fishing season grew busier and the weather grew bitter, Warnie stopped shaving and let his curly hair grow long – for warmth, he explained. His bushy hair earned him the term of endearment “Burrhead.”
“He had this sheepish, ‘hand in the cookie jar’ grin on his face all the time,” says Rutta fondly.
Like Lori Matta, Rutta was used to reports of overdue fishing boats. From her grandfather to her father to her three brothers to a number of uncles, most of the men in her family were commercial fishermen. Years ago, her father and brother Knute were lost in a fog on Lake Michigan and didn’t turn up until the next day, when the Coast Guard found them adrift off of Door County.
“For my family, it was a natural-type thing,” says Rutta, 50. “Nothing to get too flustered about.” She took the phone call about the missing Linda-E. and put it out of her mind, assuring herself: “They’re going to find them.”
Sandy Saunier has run the Marine House in Marinette with her husband, Bob, since 1973. The aunt to Warnie and Joyce Rutta, Saunier, 62, has also known commercial fishing all of her life. Over the years, she’s lost two family members to maritime accidents. In 1935, before she was born, an 11-year-old brother drowned when he fell overboard into Green Bay. Ten years later, her father drowned when he fell off of his fishing boat on Lake Superior. Sandy was 7 at the time, one of 11 children out of 15 still living at home and suddenly fatherless.
Rutta and Saunier both were battle-hardened to the risks of commercial fishing. It took a full day before the seriousness of the missing Linda-E. sunk in. And when it did, they were frightened – and suspicious. They knew the boat to be dependable and the crew capable.
“Just knowing the crew, we knew that if they were not on top of the water, they were below,” says Rutta.
Daybreak on Saturday, December 12. An initial search by two Coast Guard boats revealed no missing fish tug. The search was placed in the command of the Coast Guard’s Ninth District in Cleveland, headquarters for the entire Great Lakes region.
Nearly a dozen Coast Guard search vessels and aircraft were dispatched: Dolphin helicopters from Traverse City, Michigan; a 140-foot cutter from Sturgeon Bay; a C-130 transport plane from the 440th Air National Guard in Milwaukee; and a twin-engine Falcon jet from Cape Cod. Meanwhile, a handful of independent salvage experts and dive boat operators joined in.
But by Sunday afternoon, searchers were no longer looking for a boat. They searched for debris. And bodies. Too many hours had passed since the crew was reported missing. Submerged in the 47-degree waters of Lake Michigan, a person could survive no more than six hours.
The Coast Guard called off the search at 8 p.m. on Sunday. Nearly 200 man-hours had been expended in the two-day search; nearly 3,000 square miles of water were covered.
The lack of evidence baffled everyone. There was no distress call from the Linda-E., no wreckage, no survivors. And no answers.
On Monday, Warren Olson’s two brothers went out on the lake with Danny Anderson. The fishermen lifted the last nets set by the Linda-E. The nets held more than 1,000 pounds of chubs.
With the termination of the search-and-rescue operation, the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office launched a formal investigation of the Linda-E’s disappearance. On Monday, the office began contacting all commercial vessels that had been in the vicinity on that Friday – some 26 fishing boats, freighters, tugboats and barges.
Within eight days, they had narrowed down their list of vessels to one: an “integrated tug barge” named the Michigan/Great Lakes.
Built in 1982 and owned by Coastwise Trading Co., a subsidiary of Amoco Oil, the Michigan/Great Lakes is a combination tug boat and barge. The tug pushes the barge, wedged into place behind a rubber-cushioned V-shaped notch and lashed tight by ropes and wires. Overall, the push-barge measures 454 feet long, travels at 15 to 16 knots per hour and holds a crew of about 10.
The Michigan/Great Lakes hauls diesel and gasoline from its home port of Whiting Indiana, just outside of Chicago, to Traverse City and Cheboygan, Michigan. According to the vessel’s logs, examined by the Coast Guard, the Michigan/Great Lakes was traveling empty on December 11, following a trackline “down bound” to Indiana along the west coast of the lake. The push-barge usually coursed the east side of the lake, but barges would sometimes stray from normal shipping routes, seeking better weather.
Photographs taken by the Coast Guard on December 22, 1998, showed white paint marks embedded in the barge’s black stem and starboard bow, measuring two to eight feet above the waterline. The white pilothouse of the Linda-E. extended the exact same distance above the waterline.
In the early stages of its investigation, the Coast Guard scraped samples of this white paint from the barge’s bow. Looking for a match, it took samples from paint cans at Leif Weborg’s dock and boat cradle that may have been used to paint the Linda-E.
Investigators also interviewed several crewmen of the Michigan/Great Lakes who had been on the lake the day the Linda-E. disappeared. Though the push-barge was the only other vessel in the area when the Linda-E. went down, the crewmen claimed they did not see the boat or any debris. Nor could they offer any explanation for the white paint on the barge’s stem and bow.
Despite mounting suspicions that negligence might have led to the sinking of the Linda-E., it would be months before the Coast Guard shared any of this information with Ozaukee County law enforcement officials or the families of the missing fishermen.
The crew’s survivors were left in the dark.
Phone calls placed to the Coast Guard by one of Olson’s sons in Milwaukee went unreturned. Queries went unanswered. It would be eight months before the Coast Guard would admit that it was focusing its investigation on the likelihood of a collision and well more than a year before the family even knew who owned the push-barge that was suspected of ramming the Linda-E.
“We felt the Coast Guard knew something but was keeping it from us,” says Sandy Saunier. “We felt from day one that they were covering up something.”
Roger Chapman’s boat, Recovery, steamed out of Port Washington on December 28, bound for the waters last fished by the Linda-E. On every clement day since the fish tug was lost, Chapman and fellow Milwaukee salvor Jerry Guyer were on the water, searching.
Their search was voluntary. They knew the fishermen of the Linda-E. They wanted to put the mystery to rest and bring some peace to the families.
The search was a needle-in-a-haystack long shot for the salvors. But Chapman had faced similar odds before. He’d participated in the recovery of more than 160 boats and ships, 12 airplanes and 21 bodies in the Great Lakes. His boat was equipped with some of the most sophisticated equipment in the area.
The Recovery’s sonar revealed what appeared to be a ship more than 300 feet down. A fish net seemed to trail off the stern of the sunken vessel. But by late afternoon, rough seas again interrupted the search. They dropped a buoy on the site and motored back to port.
For weeks, bad weather prevailed, limiting further searches. And as December turned to January, family and friends waited.
Finally, in late January, after more weather delays, the Coast Guard called in its cutter Acacia, and a remote-controlled deep-water camera was sent to the bottom of Lake Michigan. But instead of the Linda-E., the camera revealed the wreck of a schooner dating back to the 19th century.
Three days later, the Coast Guard threw in the towel, saying it would no longer search for the Linda-E. The lost fishing boat sat at the bottom of the lake, a closed case to government officials, its whereabouts unknown.
The families were crestfallen, frustrated, unsure of where to turn for help.
Leif Weborg’s stepson, Craig Svoboda Maher, was working in Madison at the time as research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. With the help of his brother, Maher began contacting members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.
Maher, 34, had a Ph.D. in political science. He knew how to work the political system. He began with Rep. Tom Barrett, Sen. Herb Kohl and Sen. Russell Feingold, and quickly got nearly all members of the delegation to sign on.
Letters and faxes were sent, back and forth, from Madison and Milwaukee to Cleveland and Washington. But eventually, Maher and the families grew used to the steady refrain from even the very top Coast Guard officials: “Search and recovery is not our mission.”
“I think throughout, they [the Coast Guard] were deathly afraid of setting a precedent,” says Maher, now a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The search for the Linda-E. was stalled. And while the Coast Guard remained tight-lipped about its ongoing investigation – calling it a marine safety investigation, never a criminal probe – those who knew the boat and its crew were certain the Linda-E. had been rammed. Fishermen knew well enough that navigating the lake was a survival of the biggest. It was not unusual for freighters and barges to ignore or not see smaller boats.
Leif Weborg’s cousin had good reason to suspect the Michigan/Great Lakes. Just a few months after the disappearance of the Linda-E., Jeff Weborg was fishing off of Door County in Lake Michigan. As he was lifting nets, a push-barge bore down on his boat. Only his warning call kept him from being rammed, he says.
“It was the Michigan,” claims Weborg. “I talked to them on the radio. They just never saw us. Up to the point that I called them, they didn’t know I was there. I called, then a crewman said, ‘Yeah, now I see ya.’
“It wasn’t close,” says the fisherman. “But it could’ve been.”
On July 16, 1999, a single-engine plane flown by John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed into the ocean off of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, killing Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law. At the order of President Bill Clinton, a massive search-and-recovery effort was mounted by a Coast Guard cutter, a Navy ship and two ships manned by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). The plane was discovered five days later.
In the public’s eye, the death of another Kennedy was a national tragedy. But the families of the Linda-E’s crew couldn’t help but make comparisons. Why weren’t similar resources ordered to find the Linda-E.? Why the double standard? In the families’ eyes, they had been dealt an injustice.
“We felt for the [Kennedy] family,” says Rutta. “We believed what was done should’ve been done. But we felt there should have been an equal opportunity for the Linda-E.”
At the very outset, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declined to look into the cause of the boat’s disappearance, saying the Linda-E. did not meet its criteria for considering an investigation: A sunken vessel or aircraft must have at least six fatalities, the vessel or aircraft must weigh at least 100 gross tons and the total loss must be at least $500,000.
The Kennedy plane crash did not meet the criteria either, yet a team of nine investigators was assigned to find the cause.
Private salvage experts continued to cruise the waters for the Linda-E. Even the letter of a psychic who claimed she knew the exact location of the boat was explored, to no avail. But again and again, the Coast Guard said there was no governmental agency with jurisdictional authority to hunt for lost vessels when it was presumed that a life was no longer at stake.
“Does everything that happens on this earth have a jurisdictional authority? I don’t know,” says David Lersch, former commander of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Milwaukee. “That just isn’t within our mission area. Typically, it’s the responsibility of the owners of the vessel or others – insurance companies. As long as there’s a probability that we’re going to find somebody alive, we’ll look for them.”
The Kennedy crash was the last straw for Rutta and Saunier. Both were take-charge women, women their families would look to during times of crisis. Up until then, they had taken a wait-and-see attitude, deferring to the sons of Leif Weborg, who, after all, was the captain of the boat.
But they had had enough. The two women decided to take things into their own hands.
Saunier has served on the Marinette city council for 14 years and was once active in the Tavern League. She knew how to push buttons, how to get the attention of a politician. Rutta was recently divorced and rebuilding her life, asserting her independence.
“My driving force was my brother’s kids,” says Rutta. “They were counting on me to help them find that boat.”
In late August, they started circulating petitions across the state, calling for help in locating the Linda-E. In five weeks, they had collected 5,000 signatures.
As the petitions circulated, Saunier buttonholed Sen. Feingold and Rep. Mark Green at a town meeting in Crivitz.
“The only one who really stuck with us was Mark,” says Saunier.
Green was sworn into office as the freshman representative of Wisconsin’s eighth Congressional district on January 6, 1999, 26 days after the Linda-E. disappeared. Partly through perseverance and partly by default, the congressman from Green Bay became the families’ best ally, the most outspoken critic of how the government was handling – and not handling – the case.
Green met with the commandant of the Coast Guard. He sent letters to the chairmen of the NTSB and NOAA, asking each agency to reopen a search for the boat. When Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert appeared at a Republican Party fundraiser in Green Bay, the congressman made sure the speaker was informed about the Linda-E.
But even Green’s best efforts were shot down.
In November, he organized a two-hour, closed-door meeting in Green Bay between Coast Guard brass and family members, who pleaded with the officials again to reopen the search.
“We told them, ‘We need to know what happened,’ ” says Rutta. “ ‘And you need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’ ”
But the Coast Guard balked, saying it lacked the sufficient equipment or funds to carry out such an extensive project.
“It was a great source of frustration,” says Green. “There was nobody responsible who was willing to take up this search.… This taught me so much about the possibilities and the shortcomings of our government.”
On December 8, 1999, nearly a year after the Linda-E. was lost, the investigative report was made public. It identified four “plausible probable causes” of the boat’s disappearance: collision with another vessel, specifically, the Michigan/Great Lakes push-barge; collision with a partially submerged object; structural failure; failure of hull fitting.
It had been nearly a year since crew members had been interviewed and paint samples taken from the hull of the push-barge and Weborg’s fish shed. Tests to match the paint samples were “inconclusive.”
There was no hard evidence to find the cause of the mysterious disappearance. Yet there would be no additional action by the Coast Guard or other agencies to find the one piece of evidence that would solve the mystery – the Linda-E.
By order of the Coast Guard’s Ninth District headquarters, the investigation was closed.
“The Coast Guard’s conclusion was there was no conclusion,” says Rutta. “We were angry.”
What would happen now? the families wondered. Shouldn’t some agency be responsible for finding the missing loved ones? If a plane were lost, wouldn’t there be a probe? Or if a car was run off a road, wouldn’t some law enforcement agency be respon-sible to retrieve the bodies? Wouldn’t there be an investigation to find the guilty party?
In the end, their questions would be answered through coincidence and luck.
In late May, while beginning an annual recruitment tour of the Great Lakes, a Navy minehunter was asked by a group of private divers in Marquette, Michigan, to search the waters of Lake Superior for a small aircraft that presumably had crashed 25 years ago.
The search came up empty. But news reports of the mission reached the family of Warren Olson. They pushed Mark Green to request a similar search for the Linda-E.
The Navy agreed and committed two ships – the USS Defender and USS Kingfisher – to 34 hours of hunt time.
The USS Defender is a Navy minesweeper. It measures 224 feet from stem to stern and weighs 14 tons. With a crew of 83, its chief function is hunting down underwater mines and detonating them at sea.
In times of peace, a minesweeper has a host of other duties, including mapping the ocean floor. With sophisticated sonar, radar and a high-tech crew, a minesweeper is capable of locating an object as small as the lid of a garbage can – the approximate size of a mine. A similar ship, a Navy minehunter, found the wreckage of John Kennedy Jr.’s lost plane in the Atlantic.
On Thursday, June 15, the Kingfisher’s sweep of the area revealed nothing. The following Sunday, Father’s Day, the Defender took its turn on its way south to Milwaukee.
The Defender was built in 1989 by the Marinette Marine Corp. On the day it was launched, Sandy Saunier watched from the dock as local dignitaries and Navy officers splashed champagne across its gray bow.
“Little did I know that it would later come back to help my family,” says Saunier of the coincidence.
Trailing behind the Defender as it steamed to the search site was a Coast Guard auxiliary boat, provided for the fishermen’s families, news reporters and Rep. Green and his staff. As Green watched the Navy ship cut the Lake Michigan surf, a “Coastie” leaned over to him.
“You know,” he said to the congressman, “we’re not going to find this boat.”
Green wondered if the Coast Guard officer might be right.
Aboard the Defender, Navy officers huddled over charts provided by the Coast Guard officers and private salvage experts. To the west, to the east, all around the site of the Linda-E.’s fishing buoys – the area had been blanketed by search vessels.
Cruising at barely four knots, the ship “mowed the lawn,” its sonar scanning 400-yard swatches with each pass.
After covering about 25 square miles, and as the sun moved across the southwestern sky, ship navigators pointed to a small, narrow triangle on the chart, a pie slice wedged between two larger grids. The gap was no more than a half-inch on the chart, representing at its widest point 300 meters of water.
The triangle had been covered by private searchers, but only on a quick pass in bad weather and not using the sophisticated digital equipment the Defender had on-board.
“Let’s give it a shot,” said the ship’s commander.
The Navy ship traversed the length of the thin gap, and at its end, it began a tight turn to reverse its direction.
And in the middle of the ship’s turn, an echo suddenly registered on the sonar screen.
There was something there, something on the bottom of the lake.
The ship cut its engines. Sailors lowered an underwater vehicle rigged with a camera, lights and sonar into the lake. And in the murky water, far below the surface, the lights of the camera revealed the dreamy white image of the bow of a boat. On the bow’s starboard side, written in stark black letters, was a woman’s name: Linda-E.
With the discovery of the Linda-E., the Coast Guard was forced to reopen its investigation. Three days later, a Coast Guard crew made a videotape of the sunken boat.
Though the Linda-E. was within reach of divers, only specially equipped divers could make it safely to a depth of 260 feet. So instead, the Coast Guard used a remote-operating vehicle equipped with a submersible camera to examine the fishing tug.
The images on the videotape paint a haunting underwater scene:
Sunlight fades from view at 70 feet below as the camera descends. The bright spotlights switch on, and at 240 feet, the white outline of a boat comes into view. There is no sound.
The boat sits in colorless silt, listing 20 degrees to its left. The pilothouse appears undisturbed, and on the port side, a door is tightly shut.
But as the camera slowly creeps around the stern of the boat, a piece of machinery protrudes from within, suspended in the water. The stern door is wide open.
The camera continues to circle the boat, and from a vantage point above the deck, a huge, rusty gash appears, unmistakable evidence of a collision.
The camera moves on to the boat’s right side, and suddenly, fishing nets appear, a tangled, twisted, chaotic mess of gill nets waving faintly in the current, covering the open service door, sealing the boat’s starboard side.
The camera is too large and fragile to move inside. All around, portholes are obscured, the glass window intact but blocked by debris.
But through one porthole, a blaze-orange image appears, wedged against the glass and glaring brightly in the spotlight. It could be plastic, it could be fabric, orange fabric. The camera moves closer, a mechanical hand tapping at the window.
But there is no movement.
There are several scenarios of what happened during the Linda-E.’s final moments. Most of them cannot be proven. But given the physical evidence found at the bottom of the lake, some are more plausible than others.
Maybe, goes one scenario, the pilot of the push-barge was down below, grabbing a hot coffee or eating lunch during the noon hour, far removed from the tug’s radar screen and oblivious to the fish tug ahead. Or maybe the crew had just changed shift, as indicated by the log of the Michigan/Great Lakes.
And maybe the crew of the push-barge then heard a crash or felt a jolt as the raked bow of the 454-foot barge hit the fishing boat. Maybe by the time the push-barge’s crew climbed to the wheelhouse, the Linda-E. was already gone, the noonday sun reflecting off of the water and blinding the tug’s crew as they searched the water, the fishing boat spiraling to the lake’s silty bottom, only a swirl of white foam left on the surface.
Maybe the Linda-E. was underway after setting its nets, heading northwest to Port Washington, the boat’s controls set on automatic pilot and its three fishermen unaware of the barge steaming toward them as they grabbed a bite to eat or dressed their catch of fish or cleaned out the boat through the open stern door.
Or maybe the Linda-E. was adrift, its crew still fishing and its pilothouse unmanned.
Maybe Weborg, Olson and Matta were taken off-guard, thrown against the steel walls of the hull by the might of the collision.
Or maybe, just maybe, they looked out of a porthole at the final moment, the massive barge darkening their sky, leaving them no time to grab the cell phone, no time to get off a distress call, barely seconds to reach frantically for blaze-orange nylon exposure suits as the freezing lake water rushed in around them through the stern and starboard doors, unraveling miles of gill nets and trapping them inside.
In October, as Milwaukee Magazine went to press, the Coast Guard released its final report on the sinking of the Linda-E. According to sources, the Coast Guard would confirm what the fishermen’s families had speculated early on: that it was the Michigan/Great Lakes that rolled over the fishing boat, sending it to the lake’s bottom. But the report would also cast some degree of blame on the crew of the fishing boat for not giving way to an oncoming vessel.
As late as September, the operator and the owner of the Michigan/Great Lakes, Amoco Oil, denied any wrongdoing in the sinking of the Linda-E. Under U.S. Coast Guard navigation rules, a person found guilty of operating a vessel in a “grossly negligent manner” could face up to $5,000 in fines, one year in prison, or both, or simply lose his pilot’s license.
“The Coast Guard and everyone else were hoping that if they ignored us long enough, we’d all go away,” says Joyce Rutta, still angry with her family’s treatment by federal authorities. “But we didn’t do that.”
In August, Scott Matta’s widow, Lori, filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of her two daughter’s against Amoco Oil. Also named in the suit was her own father, Leif Weborg, the owner of the Linda-E., suggesting that Weborg was partially responsible for the sinking of his boat, a legal move to force Amoco to prove fault.
Unless a settlement is reached in the lawsuit, more evidence will be needed from the boat as the case goes to trial — the time on the boat’s clock, the position of the throttle, the position of the autopilot, the position of the crew’s bodies, presumed to be inside the vessel. The families have not come to an agreement as to whether the boat should be raised or left to rest where it lies. But salvage experts stand by, ready to bring it to the surface.
To fill the vacancy left by the lost fishermen, Lori Matta and her daughters moved into a duplex with her mother, Sherry Weborg.
Since the Linda-E. and its crew “cleared the piers” on that December morning in 1998, no others have fished out of Port Washington. With the loss of the fish tug, commercial fishing in the Port died.
Weborg’s family sold the Oliver H. Smith in April 1999. Last summer, Rotary Park was opened along the Port’s marina as a tribute to the lost industry. And just yards from where the Linda-E. once docked, waterside luxury condominiums went up, selling for $300,000 apiece.
Days after the Linda-E. disappeared, Warren Olson’s brother, Knute, stopped fishing, tormented by the loss of his older brother. Danny Anderson, one of the last of a dying breed, continues to fish, working the beds of Lake Michigan on the Jolene and traveling to Alaska each summer to catch salmon.
Meanwhile, Anderson’s father, Alvin, endures a restless retirement, both hands crippled by the lifelong toil of a commercial fisherman.
Three days before Lee Weborg took his boat on its final voyage, he visited Alvin Anderson, his old friend and former partner, at his home on the South Side of Milwaukee. As they would from time to time, the two commercial fishermen went down into Anderson’s basement to shoot the breeze, knock around ideas about fishing and boats and the problems of the world.
After a beer or two, Anderson led Weborg up the basement stairs. It was getting late.
“Lee, why don’t you quit?” Anderson said as he walked Weborg to the door. “You don’t need it anymore. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. Why don’t you take the time to smell the roses?”
Weborg the working fisherman, the holdout, studied his friend for a moment. Then he tucked his chin into his shoulder the way he would and smiled.
“Yeah, I suppose,” he said, turning to go. “But you know, Alvin, I love what I’m doing.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.