From the Archives: Mysterious double drowning still haunts those who remember

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 10, 2016, the 35th anniversary of the Becker drowning. References to new developments were current to that date five years ago.

Late in the evening of March 10, 1981, Michelle Becker and her husband, William, a police officer with the Department of Environmental Conservation, left a dinner party on Ole Jule Lane in Mattituck, having spent several hours enjoying a few drinks and their friend’s hot tub. The Beckers, who had been married about 17 years, were just two miles from the Westview Drive home they shared with their three children.

They never returned to that home.

Shortly past noon the next day, Ms. Becker’s brother, Michael Malkush, received a phone call at the school where he worked as a teacher. There was a family emergency, he was told.

His brother-in-law had drowned. His sister was missing.

A day later, on March 12, police divers found Ms. Becker’s body in Mattituck Inlet, near where her husband’s body had been discovered at the former Matt-A-Mar Marina on Wickham Avenue.

Investigators would quickly declare the cause of both deaths to be accidental drowning and, on June 16, 1983, the investigation by Suffolk County police concluded with the following statement in a report: “There being no apparent criminal action to be taken, it is required that this case be closed.”

In the more than three decades that have passed, Mr. Malkush, who never believed the deaths to be accidental and questioned the seriousness of the police investigation from the beginning, has been left wondering just what happened that cold late-winter night.

‘We agreed with him that the facts surrounding the case don’t really add up to a double drowning.’

Maj. Scott Florence

Now, thanks to his persistence and efforts by DEC law enforcement, those lingering questions could soon find answers.

With the 35th anniversary of the Beckers’ deaths looming this week, DEC police are expected to announce today a $15,000 reward for anyone who comes forward with new information about the decades-old case that leads to an arrest and conviction. DEC police Maj. Scott Florence, who has been assigned to the case since the early ’90s, said anyone with information should contact Suffolk County police homicide detectives at 631-852-6392.

In a statement to The Suffolk Times, Suffolk County police confirmed that its homicide bureau has been in touch with DEC police and “would be open to receiving any new information anyone has to provide.”

Maj. Florence said several facts surrounding the case make the deaths appear suspicious. For starters, Mr. Becker’s tie was found on the floor of a nearby boat owned by the man whose gathering the couple had attended earlier that evening. A dining table in the boat’s cabin was broken off its hinges.

“Today, you would look at that and go, maybe there was a struggle and his tie got pulled off and the table broke,” Maj. Florence said.

Law enforcement’s renewed interest is welcome news to family members who questioned the initial investigation, which they felt drew conclusions too quickly.

“This has haunted our family for 35 years,” Mr. Malkush, now 64, said in an interview Friday. “We’re hoping that all these years later someone with information is finally willing to talk.”

After receiving assistance last year from a retired police sergeant who helped him delve into the facts of the case, Mr. Malkush reached out to Maj. Florence about a year ago to see whether the DEC still had interest in the case.

“I told him basically, ‘Yes, of course we [do],’ ” the major said. “We agreed with him that the facts surrounding the case don’t really add up to a double drowning.”

Maj. Florence said he reached out to the officers union and the New York Conservation Officers Association about offering a reward. The organizations agreed on $15,000, the largest reward DEC police say they have ever offered.

Mr. Malkush has been receiving guidance from John Fox, a retired Westchester County police sergeant. Mr. Fox’s interest in the case began with a November 2014 email from a woman who has friends and family in the DEC police. She asked Mr. Fox if he would be interested in examining the Becker case.

He reached out to Mr. Malkush and has been in communication with him ever since. Mr. Fox said his role has been as an adviser; he has not interviewed anyone associated with the case.

His goal, he said, was to generate interest so authorities would agree to take another look at it.

“For all we know, the person involved could be deceased,” Mr. Fox said. “But I’m sure there is at least one person out there who knows exactly what happened that night.”

Michelle Becker owned Michelle's Beauty Salon on Pike Street at the time of her death. She was also a past president of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Michelle Becker owned Michelle’s Beauty Salon on Pike Street at the time of her death. She was also a past president of the local Chamber of Commerce. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

William and Michelle Becker were well-known, respected members of the Mattituck community, their family members said. Ms. Becker owned Michelle’s Beauty Salon on Pike Street and had served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce and the Lioness Club.

“They were great people and parents,” said their oldest son, Tim.

Following a previous meeting with Mr. Malkush in January 2014, The Suffolk Times requested from Suffolk County police, who led the Becker death investigations, all files related to their initial inquiry. Three weeks later, the newspaper received a 49-page file including a death report, several supplementary police reports, crime lab reports, evidence logs, death certificates and sworn statements from the three people who spent that evening with the Beckers and one of the men who found Mr. Becker’s body the following morning. The records show that much of the investigation by the Seventh Squad took place in the eight days immediately following the Beckers’ death, with the homicide bureau giving the case a second look three months later.

Both investigations reached similar conclusions: The Beckers, possibly feeling romantic, stopped at the marina. One likely fell into the icy water and the other drowned trying to help them.

It’s a scenario Mr. Malkush said was first outlined to him by police at the scene of the investigation the day his brother-in-law’s body was discovered partially submerged in water, with one leg on the diving platform of a boat.

In a handwritten statement to police, Claude Davis of Mattituck told investigators he and coworker Wendell Ireland, also of Mattituck, discovered the body of Mr. Becker, 43, at Matt-A-Mar Marina about 11 a.m. March 11, 1981, as they arrived to meet their boss, Arthur Siemerling, and help him remove a canvas from his boat. It was at the house of Mr. Siemerling’s parents on Ole Jule Lane that the Beckers were last seen about 11:30 p.m. the previous evening.

Mr. Davis, who worked for Mr. Siemerling at North Fork Oil Heat and was also his brother-in-law, said that as he walked down the ramp to the dock, Mr. Ireland asked, “Do you see that leg?”

“I looked and saw the foot and part of the leg of a person on the diving platform,” wrote Mr. Davis, who added that Mr. Becker’s body was caught on an electrical wire. “When I got to the boat I could see the face of the subject and it was Bill Becker.”

RELATED STORY: A closer look inside the Becker death investigation

Nowhere in the police files released to The Suffolk Times is it indicated that Mr. Ireland, who first discovered Mr. Becker’s body, gave a witness statement to police that day. Mr. Davis was also sent home by Southold Town police before a Seventh Squad detective arrived on scene about 40 minutes after the body was discovered, according to the initial death report.

Seventh Squad detective Ray Purcell reported that he was greeted by Southold Police Department detective Joseph Conway Sr. as he arrived, according to the police report. Mr. Conway informed Mr. Purcell that police had already photographed the body of Mr. Becker, who was found still wearing his green DEC police uniform, and had removed it from the water. The Suffolk Times would report later that year that the photos could not be developed due to an equipment malfunction.

Assistant medical examiner Dr. Barry Hellman, who arrived on the scene minutes after Mr. Purcell, said Mr. Becker had a lump between his eyes too minor to have “knocked him out,” small cuts on his hands and torn fabric above the knee on his pants, the death report states.

Much of Mr. Malkush’s concern about the investigation then and now has to do with how quickly investigators appeared to rule out any foul play in the deaths of his sister, who was 36, and brother-in-law.

Tim Becker, who was 16 at the time of his parents’ death, said this week that when he returned home from school the day his father’s body was found, police told him both his parents had drowned.

“They hadn’t even discovered my mom’s body yet,” Mr. Becker, now 51, recalled, “but they already had everything completely drawn up.”

The current view of Mattituck Inlet from near where the Beckers' bodies were found in March 1981. (Credit: Grant Parpan)
The current view of Mattituck Inlet from near where the Beckers’ bodies were found in March 1981. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Mr. Malkush said he arrived at the marina about 2 1/2 hours after his brother-in-law’s body was discovered and that an off-duty Southold Town police officer had already driven the couple’s car back to the family home, details all confirmed in the death report. The officer, John Ship, whose wife, Joanne, worked for Ms. Becker and later purchased her business, removed from the car a bag containing the Beckers’ swimsuits and towels from the night before and brought them into the Becker house, where police stated in an investigation report that as many as 16 friends, family members and law enforcement officers were coming and going throughout the day.

The car was never dusted for fingerprints, the Becker family said, nor does the report indicate that any dusting had occurred.

“Unfortunately, it was never handled as suspicious in 1981,” Mr. Malkush said. “Right from the beginning, the chief of police [Carl Cataldo] at the time said it’s an accidental double drowning.”

Police reports from 1981 indicate that Chief Cataldo was an investigator at the scene where Mr. Becker’s body was found and also at the Becker house later that same day. According to a police report, a Newsday reporter also asked the chief if he had attended the March 10 gathering at the Siemerling house, but he said he had been to the house only once before, years earlier.

Tim Becker said much of his family’s frustration over the years has centered specifically on the Southold Town Police Department’s position on the investigation. While the DEC police and Suffolk County Police Department each launched more detailed investigations into the deaths, Chief Cataldo never backed away from his initial public statement that “there was no foul play.”

“It was just a horrible, tragic accident,” he told The Suffolk Times the week of the deaths.

In that same article, Chief Cataldo vehemently denied that local police had withheld any information.

“We don’t just have one police department looking into this case,” he said. “The Seventh Squad, the medical examiner and, at the beginning, the DEC were all involved … Anybody who thinks all those departments could get together to withhold information is idiotic.”

RELATED STORY: Drownings occurred during period of transition for local police 

At the time of the Beckers’ deaths, the DEC had only conservation officers and no investigators, which limited the agency’s ability to pursue the case. A few years later, an investigative bureau was created, Maj. Florence said.

One of the initial investigators the DEC hired, a detective named Doug Smith, came from the New York State Police Department. About a decade after the drownings, Mr. Smith re-examined the case and interviewed everyone involved, Maj. Florence said.

While his inquiry found no suspects, he concluded that the accidental double drowning theory did not add up, Maj. Florence said.

“It just doesn’t seem that two people stumbled around a marina and drowned,” the major said.

In 1994, the case was assigned to Maj. Florence, who set about confirming where all the people involved in the case were living. Limited manpower, however, prevented further investigation, such as interviewing everyone yet again.

“Since then, it’s just sat waiting for someone to come forward,” he said.

Maj. Florence reiterated this week that there are no new theories as to what happened that night, but he is hopeful someone can provide information to shed light. He said he did not intend to criticize the way police handled the case, but did note that “things that were done back then certainly wouldn’t have been done today. It would have been a different crime scene today.”

A police diagram of the crime scene. (Credit: Suffolk County Police Department)
A police diagram of the crime scene. (Credit: Suffolk County Police Department)

Mr. Siemerling, who hosted the March 10 gathering and whose employees discovered Mr. Becker’s body, became a central figure in the case, although he was never deemed a suspect. An August 1981 report by Suffolk County homicide detective Thomas Schmitt concluded by saying that, in his opinion, Mr. Siemerling “is not involved in the deaths of William and Michelle Becker.”

Investigators continued to question Mr. Siemerling, however, given the fact that the Beckers were last seen at his family’s home and that the bodies were both discovered near his 36-foot cabin cruiser, Happy Ours. According to a police report, Mr. Becker’s tie was discovered on Mr. Siemerling’s boat on March 11, 1981.

Police interviewed Mr. Siemerling the day Mr. Becker’s body was discovered and then took a written statement from him on March 12, 1981, at his attorney’s office in Riverhead. Mr. Siermerling told police he had known the Beckers for five years and that he and his estranged wife were close friends with the couple. The dinner party that night, he said, was to be either a celebration or an “effort to console him,” depending on the outcome of his divorce hearing earlier in the day, according to a police report.

On March 13, 1981, Seventh Squad investigators asked Mr. Siemerling if he would take a polygraph test. Mr. Siemerling agreed and told police he did not want to wait too long, according to a police report. A date was set for March 15, 1981, but Mr. Siemerling later canceled the test on the advice of his attorney “because of his emotional condition,” a police report noted.

Five months later, a county homicide detective interviewed Mr. Siemerling again. He admitted to that detective being “romantically involved” with Ms. Becker, but noted that “he had never been intimate with her on any occasion.” Mr. Siemerling told the detective that they had discussed the possibility of getting together and divorcing their spouses. Mr. Siemerling also said Ms. Becker had loaned him $3,000 over the course of a year, most of which went toward work on his boat. A week after that interview, on Aug. 18, 1981, Mr. Siemerling submitted to a polygraph test and the examining officer concluded that he had answered the questions truthfully. A polygraph test on Susan Jacobs, who also attended the March 10 gathering and left at the same time as the Beckers, yielded similar results. A report completed by the officer with further details on the polygraph exams was referenced but not included in the files released to The Suffolk Times.

Mr. Siemerling and Ms. Jacobs began dating in the summer of 1981, according to police reports; they are now married and living together in Mattituck. When reached by telephone, Ms. Siemerling said the couple had not heard of any renewed interest in the case.

“We haven’t heard anything about that at all,” she said.

The couple declined to discuss the case any further.

RELATED STORY: Timeline of key dates in double drowning case

While the goal of the Becker family and investigators today is for someone to come forward with new information, that could prove tricky. Many of the people involved in 1981 — including Chief Cataldo and Mr. Davis, one of the men who found the body — are now deceased.

Mr. Conway, the first Southold police detective on the scene, declined comment for this story, saying he hadn’t reviewed the facts of the case in recent years.

Mr. Ship, the off-duty officer who drove the Beckers’ car from the scene, could not be reached for comment. His wife, Joanne, who worked with Ms. Becker and later purchased her business, said, “She was my friend and I love her children.” Of her friend’s death, she said, “I don’t know that it was suspicious, but I do know that it was unfortunate.”

Marne Sigurdson, the only other guest at the gathering on March 10, 1981, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tim Becker said that in the early years following his parents’ deaths local police officers and family friends were reluctant to share information he believed they had about the case.

“All of them not only did nothing to lend a hand in the investigation but appeared then and now that they were deliberately not forthcoming with pertinent information that could have allowed the truth to surface,” he said.

Mr. Malkush said, “Maybe now [people with information] have found God” or are “on their death beds and finally willing to talk.”

While Mr. Malkush hired a private investigator soon after his sister died and has never given up hope that “the family might one day find closure,” Mr. Becker said he didn’t give much thought as to what happened to his parents early on.

Three years after they died, he said, he met his wife, who has often asked if he wanted to learn more about what happened that night. It wasn’t until recent years, after his grandparents, Helen and Bernard Malkush, passed away, that the family began to feel comfortable openly discussing the facts of the case.

“We always said that we lost my grandfather that night, too,” Mr. Becker said. “He took it very hard.”

Each of the Beckers’ three children moved to opposite corners of the country as they grew to adulthood. Tim is in southern California, while his younger siblings live in Oregon and Florida.

Mr. Malkush, who lived in Wading River at the time his sister and brother-in-law were found dead, has moved even closer to them in the years since. Today, he lives in Cutchogue, on the very same street where they are buried.

“That’s why I’m reminded of them every single day,” he said.