Oceanographer hopes to solve the mystery of 'Barnacle Bill'

Oceanographer hopes to solve the mystery of 'Barnacle Bill' »Play Video
TACOMA, Wash. - The red survival suit caught the runner's eye. The skeleton inside prompted the call to police.

Twenty nine years later, a local oceanographer hopes to solve a maritime mystery spanning three states and thousands of miles of the Pacific.

"If we could crack the case, it's definitely a book," said Seattle oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer. "It's like having a cold case."

The cold case began in the warm waters off Oahu in 1982, when the body of a man in his 20s or 30s washed ashore. He was wearing a Bayley immersion suit, Ebbesmeyer said, and was missing his left arm below his elbow.

"They called him 'Barnacle Bill' because he had a one-inch barnacle growing in his eye socket," Ebbesmeyer said. "I'm fascinated by what washes up, where's it from, how does it get here, and I want to know the human dimension. I want to know the story behind it."

Authorities have been trying to crack Bill's story for three decades. One of the biggest clues is that the suit he was wearing was sold to the old Tacoma Marine Supply. The type of exposure suit was generally sold to commercial fishermen, said Pamela Cadiente, chief investigator for the Honolulu Medical Examiner's Office.

"It is very interesting. I wish we could find out who this person is," Cadiente said.

The biggest hurdle may be time, memory and lack of evidence. Tacoma Marine Supply shut down years ago, although former employees are still very much a part of marine life in the area.

"Memory fades over time, and I don't know," said Don Jacobsen, whose father owned the store, and who owns his own marine supply shop in Tacoma. "Unless it was a regular gentleman coming in all the time, who got to have a personal relationship with the store or the employees there, it could be pretty tough."

"Anybody who was associated with this case is now gone from our office," Cadiente said. The body was cremated in 1982, she added, after multiple attempts were made to identify it through dental records.

Ebbesmeyer has studied ocean currents in the area. Given the information that the body was likely in the water for two years before it was found, he believes "Bill" came from Alaska.

Despite a lack of more information, Ebbesmeyer remains undeterred.

"When he bought (the suit) in 1979, it had no serial number on it," Ebbesmeyer said. "We have no paper trail, because he paid cash. We have no serial number, because it was too early for that.

"We don't know who he is, but we can know."