Paul V. Coates — Confidential File, June 30, 1959

Nobody Has Died Laughing Yet

Watch in Shark Just Sad Joke

Paul CoatesJoe St. Denis, occupation sea captain, swabbed the panic a little thicker and a little wider last week.

Returning
from Catalina Island waters, he reported that he landed a 750-lb. white
killer shark, split open its belly and removed a corroded wrist watch.

No doubt, you read the story. It made all the papers.

A Death Watch

The
mangled watch, which St. Denis later turned over to the Sheriff's Dept.
for study, was checked against the timepieces worn by persons lost at
sea over the last half-dozen years.

A Compton housewife feared
it belonged to her husband, who's been missing since June 4, the date
his small boat disappeared between Catalina and Santa Barbara Island.

X Marks Something

There were other theories, too. Plenty of them.

But forget theories for a moment, and listen to the true story, as related to me by Capt. St. Denis.

I
met the captain, a flashily dressed, jive-talking young man in Newport
Beach's Berkshire Restaurant a couple of nights ago. Or, more
accurately, he met me.

With my wife and kids, I was having dinner when he approached and squatted on his haunches next to my chair.

"I've got a story for you, Dad," he began. "I'll give you the X on it."

Drink Perching

"The X?" I asked him.

"The exclusive, man. Exclusive. You read that bit about the watch in the shark's stomach? I'm the oaf that story was about."

Capt.
St. Denis perched the drink which was traveling with him on the edge of
our table and produced a business card from his pocket.

Allowing me a moment to study it, he picked up his drink again and continued:

"What a mess that caper got me into.

"What
happened," he said, "is I had this charter party out, and it was
laughs, you know? Well, with the shark scare on and everything, we got
this idea.

"I called in to the radio station — it's a station
that I do a weather report on — that we caught a huge shark, cut it
open, and found a man's watch in its stomach." 

The Jolly One

Sea
Capt. St. Denis smiled wryly. "At that time, it sounded very funny.
Trouble is, by the time we got back to the mainland, it had already
been broadcast over the radio — and reporters, wire services,
everybody wanted more dope on it. Man, I had to get me a watch real
fast."

My kids halted their dinner and listened as the
fascinating mariner related how he went from jewelry store to jewelry
store in the Newport-Balboa area, trying to hustle up a cheap, broken
watch.

"Finally, a jeweler gave me some old parts. I smacked
them around a bit, and dipped them in acid to make it look more real,"
St. Denis explained.

"That's the watch," he added, "that the
reporters took the picture of — the one I finally had to turn over to
the sheriffs. Once the story started building, I had to stick to it."

(Roger
Lacy, head of the sheriff's crime lab, confirmed today that the
timepiece had never been in the stomach of a shark. There was no
organic material clinging to it, said Lacy, but there was evidence it
had been tampered with to give an impression of long immersion in salt
water.)

I asked St. Denis if he didn't think it was a pretty grim practical joke.

"Man,
I know it," he answered. "Like, this one woman whose husband's boat has
been missing out there — she must have called me half a dozen times.

"I tried to tell her, 'Lady, you're going the wrong route. That isn't your husband's watch. Forget it, lady.' "

St. Denis sighed. "Everybody's been bugging me. There was no shark. There was no watch. There was nothing. It was just a joke, a gag.

"It sounded," Capt. Joe St. Denis said sadly, "funny at the time."

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Columnists, Paul Coates. Bookmark the permalink.

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