Indigenous

5 years after son's drowning, Tyendinaga family says unanswered questions should trigger new investigation

Robin and Tammy Maracle want a new investigation into the death of their son Tyler, who drowned while fishing with a friend in the Bay of Quinte in 2015.

Family of Tyler Maracle to meet with Ontario Provincial Police, coroner's office to discuss case

Tyler Maracle, 21, was an experienced fisher who was found drowned on May 8, 2015. His family wants his case reopened. (Submitted by the Maracle family )

Robin Maracle watches cormorants skim the Bay of Quinte waters where his 21-year-old son was found drowned five years ago in circumstances shrouded by whispers and rumours. 

Standing on the northern shore of the bay, in Tyendinaga Mohawk territory about 220 kilometres west of Ottawa, Maracle points east where the Skyway Bridge spans the bay. He said his son, Tyler Maracle, and his friend Matthew Fairman, launched their boat just beyond the bridge. 

Then he gestures across the bay to an area near a small lighthouse where the young men and the boat were found separately after a nearly two-week search.  

"It never added up," said Maracle. 

Maracle said the young men and their boat were found in an area that had been searched for days by Ontario Provincial Police using sonar, by community volunteers dragging the bay floor with hooks and by others scouring the shore. 

Somehow, searchers missed their bodies and the 14-foot aluminum boat. 

"People were out here night and day looking, scraping, people on the water, helicopters, sonar twice and sonar came right up through there by the lighthouse," said Maracle. 

"They just said it was natural drowning. I still don't buy it."

Robin Maracle looks out over the Bay of Quinte across from the area where his son's body was found five years ago. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Last Thursday, Tyler Maracle's mother Tammy Maracle began a protest outside the Tyendinaga Mohawk police station to demand the reopening of her son's case. Community members lit and maintained a sacred fire for Maracle and she's been there every day since.  

She was planning to do it earlier this year, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"I've been thinking about doing it for three years," she said.

"Every day it bothers me and [Robin Maracle]. And I said, let's go out there."

As a result of her protest, Tyendinaga Police Chief Jason Brant said he reached out to the Ontario Provincial Police which contacted Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner. 

"I understand the family's frustration; I understand the need for closure," said Brant. 

The coroner's office, which concluded the deaths to be the result of accidental drowning, said in an emailed statement it would "work with the OPP and the Maracle family as next steps are determined."

The Maracle family is now preparing for a meeting with the coroner's office and the OPP to discuss the case.

Family questions OPP theory

Tyler Maracle, 21, and Matthew Fairman, 26, went out spearfishing at about 1:30 a.m. on April 26, 2015. Their cell phones stopped communicating with the Telus network at 3:09 a.m., according to Ontario Provincial Police investigative records provided to CBC News.

Their bodies were found separately, about 15 metres apart, in the afternoon of May 8, 2015, by two fishers, according to OPP records. The submerged boat was found the next day, about 50 metres from where their bodies were discovered, by an OPP marine unit that noticed yellow floaters bobbing in the water. 

The floaters were connected to a piece of net with dead fish and this led them to the boat, which sat beneath about 4.5 metres of water with about 274 metres of net full of rotting fish, according to the OPP records.

The OPP records note the boat was found "within the search area" of previous underwater sonar sweeps. 

"Police advised that the nets and fish covered the boat under water and appear to have masked it from the OPP … sonar," said one of the OPP reports. 

"Police advised that nobody will know exactly what transpired and how Tyler and [Matthew] died unless a witness to what occurred is located."

The OPP had a theory. Investigators believed the young men cut and tried to haul in the fish caught in the net — which belonged to another member of the community — and overloaded the boat, according to the report. The boat was  found with the net full of fish, car batteries to power a small electric trolling motor and lights, and concrete blocks used to weigh down nets. 

Tammy Maracle, mother of Tyler Maracle, takes a phone call during her protest outside the Tyendinaga Mohawk police station on Tuesday evening, Sept. 15. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Robin Maracle doesn't buy this theory. He said his son was an experienced fisher and would never have tried to haul in such a large net full of fish. Plus, he said, it would take hours for even the most seasoned fisher to pull in that much net into the boat.

"I can't see them pulling that much net," he said. "You don't put that much in." 

He believes something darker happened. 

"Robin and Tammy Maracle both indicated that they believe their son Tyler and his friend were murdered," said the OPP report. 

Tensions on the water

Tammy Maracle said she believes the Tyendinaga police botched the initial investigation by assuming from the beginning it was all an accident. 

"It was just awful the way they did this," she said. 

On the first day of the search, Tyler Maracle and Matthew Fairman's hip waders were found folded on the shore a fair distance from where they were eventually found.

Tyendinaga Mohawk Police Chief Jason Brant says he reached out to the Ontario Provincial Police about Tyler Maracle's case. (CBC)
 

Robin Maracle said both young men would have been wearing their hip waders when they got into the boat. Tyler Maracle left his shoes by his pick-up truck at the boat launch. Robin Maracle doesn't understand how the hip waders ended up folded on the shore. 

"He'd [have] put them on before he got into the boat," said Robin Maracle.

"How the hell, if they're in the water, and the boat is filling up with water, how are they going to get their chest waders off? Then they are rolled right down perfectly."

The gas tank was also found floating the same day 

"It looked like someone unclipped it," he said. 

Tyler Maracle's coat and cell phone, which was in a pocket, were also found that first day, according to the OPP chronology of the search.

At the time of the disappearance there were rising tensions between fishers within the community over the lucrative pickerel catch, which was sometimes sold to black market buyers in Toronto. Nets were being cut and stolen in clandestine battles over fishing spots.

Robin Maracle said the length of net found in his son's boat isn't common among fishers in the community — over double the usual length — and that indicated that whoever placed it there was trying to grab a substantial number of fish. 

He said his son may have been trying to cut the net in retribution for an incident from the previous fishing season when they had their own nets stolen by an individual in the community. He said he believed the net found in his son's boat belonged to that same individual.

He believes something happened that night that led to his son's death.

Tyler Maracle's 14 foot aluminum boat after it was pulled from the waters of the Bay of Quinte. (Submitted by the Maracle family)

Robin and Tammy Maracle said all they want is a new set of eyes to look through the case in hopes of answering some of the nagging questions that remain. 

The boat — which the family says was never fully examined after it was found — is now buried in the community. 

"If it wasn't for our grandkid, we probably wouldn't be around," said Robin Maracle.

"It's the only thing we have to live for."

Tyler was the youngest of two children. He had an older sister. 

While fishing was always part of his life, Robin Maracle said it's not something he does anymore, since that day in May five years ago. 

"I got no feeling to do it," he said. 

"Hell, I don't even eat them. I just don't want to anymore because of that simple fact."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

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