CHATHAM — Even as loved ones gather today to remember Matthew Amsler as a friend, a son, a husband and a father, questions remain about how his remains went undetected for months, just feet from where he was last seen alive.
On July 30, a crew from Coast Guard Station Chatham was practicing a law enforcement boarding on the retired CG44301, a rescue boat on display on the front lawn, when they found Amsler's body. The remains were discovered in the lazarette, a tiny compartment in the very stern of the boat.
Accessible only through a hatch from inside the boat's stern survivor compartment, the lazarette is not a space designed to be entered by people, though it can be accessed to steer the boat in an emergency. The compartment is watertight and effectively airtight, and its hatch can be opened from either side. A Coast Guard spokeswoman could not confirm that the space had been searched when Amsler initially went missing last Oct. 27.
A spokesman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner indicated that a determination on the cause and manner of Amsler's death remains pending.
Speaking with The Chronicle this week, Chatham Police Chief Mark Pawlina described in detail the efforts made to find the 24-year-old man, who leaves behind a wife and young daughter. Late on Thursday, Oct. 27, Amsler was out with some friends at the Lighthouse Beach overlook when, at around midnight, he walked away from the group.
“I guess they didn't seem too concerned, because he had a history of doing that,” the chief said. “They just thought he was going to go off and do his thing.” Amsler's wife reported him missing just after 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 28, and police launched a search of the immediate area.
Police tried to triangulate the signal from Amsler's cell phone, but could not do so because there was only one tower within range. Pawlina said there were a “considerable” number of text messages sent from Amsler's phone until 4:46 in the morning on Oct. 28, more than four-and-a-half hours after he went missing. “But it was nothing that indicated where his location was, nothing that indicated any trouble or problem he was having,” Pawlina said.
At 10:40 p.m. Friday, about two hours after they learned of Amsler's disappearance, the police called the Coast Guard station.
“We asked the Coast Guard if they could search their property for him,” Pawlina said.
“They searched the boat,” Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Cynthia Oldham said. “The [Officer of the Deck, or duty officer] said they were on the boat calling his name, using flashlights,” she said.
It remains unclear whether the search party checked the stern survivor compartment or the lazarette, where Amsler was ultimately located.
“I don't know if they opened up that particular compartment,” Oldham said. There are a number of places on the boat where a person might not be expected to be, like the anchor chain locker, the space around the engines and fuel tanks and the lazarette, she noted. “The space where he was found is not somewhere a person would normally fit into,” Oldham said.
The search intensified on Saturday, Oct. 29, when police again called the Coast Guard to indicate that the search was still active, and to ask for a Coast Guard helicopter to assist with a search of the area. Both a Coast Guard helicopter and one from the Massachusetts State Police responded to help.
Pawlina said it was not unusual for Amsler to disappear for periods of time, and they contacted a number of places he had gone in the past, including a homeless shelter in Hyannis, friends in Falmouth, and even an agricultural commune in upstate New York. When a psychic medium offered her services to the department, police agreed.
“At that point, we had no information, so why not?” Pawlina said. The medium put forth a theory about Amsler's disappearance, “but it did not pan out,” he said.
A few weeks later, police considered the increased likelihood that Amsler had died. They ordered another air search to help the harbormaster in checking the coastline.
“Many people thought he may have gone in the water,” Pawlina said. Investigators were aware that Amsler had struggled with mental health issues, and was having trouble with his latest medication. “Everybody had concerns about that,” the chief said. Police also brought in cadaver-sniffing dogs, which searched the area of the overlook and the beach, but detected no scent.
Asked whether the cadaver dogs had searched Coast Guard property, Pawlina said he was not sure, but he did not believe so.
Coast Guard officials did confirm to police that they had carried out a search. Police were particularly interested in the lighthouse itself, which is sometimes open to the public, the chief said. In the end, the police made no move to attempt to search Coast Guard property.
“I know there's a lot of people who want to Monday morning quarterback this,” Pawlina said. The Coast Guard station is a secured military base, he said. “They know their property better than we do. We left it in their hands to search their property.”
While the historic rescue boat was open for tours conducted by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Oldham said it is not clear whether those tours included any of the boat's compartments.
“It's possible,” she said. There is no regular schedule for maintenance or inspection of the display, as there would be for an operational rescue boat, Oldham added.
The compartments on the CG44301 remain fully unlocked at all times, and were never designed to be locked, she said. Securing those compartments now would be difficult.
“They would have to weld locks on there,” she said. “It would damage a historical piece of property.”
Oldham said that while Coast Guard Investigative Services has a role in the investigation and is supporting the lead agency, the Chatham police, it will not be making any recommendations about changes in Coast Guard procedure.
While the Coast Guard station is a military base, it is protected only by a short chain-link fence with a padlocked gate.
In recent years, the Chatham Police Department has held several training sessions to help officers effectively intervene with citizens who have mental health problems, Pawlina said. The department is “committed to working as well as we can with folks with mental health issues,” and were aware that Amsler had such problems. “In that sense, we wanted to make sure we had a sense of urgency, doing everything we could to attempt to locate him.”
Pawlina said members of the department knew Amsler since he was a youngster.
“Our heart goes out to all his family members,” he said.