by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor
Four years ago, trucker Alan Schneider got the phone call that every parent dreads. His son, William, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, was dead.
Bad news soon became worse. His son had been missing for weeks, but no one called to tell Schneider. His body was found in the coastal waters off San Diego, a weight tied to his ankle. Officials on the ship claimed it was suicide, despite a note William wrote days before indicating he was in danger.
As Alan Schneider learned more, it became clear to him the official story didn’t add up. Now, the longtime OOIDA member is on a crusade to discover the truth.
A tragedy in San Diego Bay
The story — gleaned from accounts by Schneider, family members, court papers, the media and official reports — starts Dec. 11, 1999. In the wee hours of that morning, William Schneider failed to report for duty at his post on board the U.S.S. Mount Vernon, anchored near San Diego.
More than a month later, just before the Anchorage class dock landing ship put out to sea, a construction worker onboard spotted a body face-down in the 35-foot-deep water near the ship’s berth at Pier 11. The body, still fully clothed, was quickly identified as William Schneider.
Alan Schneider, who is divorced from William’s mother, never received a call from the Navy that his son was missing. In fact, the Navy didn’t call him when William’s body was recovered. The news came from a friend in Arkansas, Perry Evans, who heard about it through family channels.
“When he called me, he told me that he didn’t know the story behind it, but he heard that my son had gotten killed,” Schneider said.
Questioning the facts of the case
Schneider first learned details of the investigation after his son’s funeral in January 2000, when a Navy family aid officer assigned to the case issued a report. Around the first of February that year, Schneider began talking with the officer and others connected to the case. Several items in the reports jumped out at the grieving father.
The coroner had quickly ruled his son’s death a suicide, based on the fact there was no trauma to the young man’s body — a determination Schneider thought would be tough to make on a body that had spent more than a month in the ocean.
He then learned that at 7 a.m. the morning his son was reported missing, a broken nametag, broken eyeglasses and a uniform button — all belonging to his son — were found on one of the ship’s upper decks.
To cloud the matter even more, William’s wallet was found the morning of his disappearance under the pillow of another sailor, identified in one set of court papers as William’s “established friend.” At one point, William’s family was told that their son had suspected the other sailor of stealing $100 from him.
When the year 2000 began, William was still missing. But clues about his disappearance continued to appear. Three days after New Year’s Day, officials found a note in the Commanding Officer’s suggestion box, apparently from William.
“Hello this is SR Schneider. For some time now someone has been saying that I am a rat,” the note read. “They also said that they were going to tie something to my hands and throw me over the side of the ship. So if you would be so kind as to show him my statement he will know that I am not what they think. I love life, and the Navy is OK, so please do what you can to stop this.”
At first, officers on board the Vernon thought the note was a prank. But later analysis determined that the handwriting was William’s.
Less than two weeks later, William’s body was found in the waters off San Diego. Attached to his right ankle was a 15-pound plumber’s wrench, secured to the sailor by a 3 1/2-foot yellow rope — much as Schneider himself described in his nearly prophetic note to the ship’s commander.
A father’s quest begins
Since he learned the details of his son’s death, Alan Schneider has sought others who would listen to his story in hopes of finding out what happened that night. He has found quite a few.
Many of those Schneider contacted said they could not speak to Land Line because of privacy laws.
Officials with the Navy Criminal Investigative Service did not return numerous calls from Land Line about the case. But some people Schneider contacted were willing to discuss his efforts.
Early on, Alan talked with investigators at the San Diego Police Department. Jim Tonsevick, who works in the department’s homicide unit, said he remembered the distraught father calling his unit and the missing person’s unit. But ultimately, they were unable to help.
“Everything happened on a Navy base, and they handle their own investigations,” Tonsevick said.
Brenda D’Amico, William’s aunt, said Alan also tried other channels. He hired a local attorney, contacted the FBI, hired a private investigator, even called the office of his congressman, Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX.
The Navy Criminal Investigative Service and a family liaison assigned to the case were also on his list. Alone at times, and sometimes with other family members, Alan participated in conference calls with Navy officials.
D’Amico said the suicide finding was not accepted when it was presented to Navy officers higher up the chain of command.
“The NCIS has twice tried to close the case, citing suicide or accidental drowning in their reports to the NCIS File Review Board,” she wrote to Land Line.
“The NCIS conclusions and report have been rejected, and a new investigator has been assigned.”
Finally, when Alan and other family members felt they weren’t getting results working with the Navy, and they were unable to make progress through other channels, he took his case public.
Taking the story public
In 2000, Alan was interviewed about the case by a television station in Houston, TX, near his home in Sheridan. That story caught the eye of Mark Matthews, a reporter for KGTV television, the ABC affiliate in San Diego. The network affiliate in Houston connected them, and Matthews started talking with Alan about the case — and sharing information.
“He had some evidence he had obtained that was irrefutable,” Matthews said. “It showed the direction of the Navy’s investigation.”
In a report broadcast on the station and later posted on its Web site, Matthews reported that San Diego Police received two anonymous phone calls after William’s body was found. One named a shipmate as a potential suspect; another caller said he had information about the death.
The reporter also discovered a number of other inconsistencies in the investigation, and in the ruling that the death was a suicide.
“In talking with homicide investigators, you see a lot of suicides, and nobody ever takes their glasses off,” Matthews said. “It’s not something they think about; it’s not something they’d be thinking about.”
William’s glasses were found onboard after his disappearance.
Mathews said he also discovered from sailors aboard another Navy boat that William and one of his shipmates had a conflict over some money.
Matthews said Schneider was very determined in his quest to find the truth behind his son’s death.
“Alan has been very helpful,” he said, “a good guy to deal with.”
Not giving up
Four-plus years after his son’s death, Alan Schneider continues to search for answers.
He has continued to run down leads where he can, but now he faces a new barrier. Schneider says Navy officials have told him they are closing the case, and his son’s death will likely be declared “accidental.”
Until the Navy closes the case, Schneider says he cannot move forward. He is waiting for the Navy to process a Freedom of Information request, which should give him more information. Whatever happens, he has no plans to stop his efforts to get to the truth, and discover what happened on that December night in San Diego Bay.
—by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor
Mark Reddig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.