Law and Water

The leatherback frogmen of the NYPD Scuba Squad patrol a hellish world beyond noir, where body parts abound, the water's filthy, and mob victims wear concrete shoes. And get this—they love it.

Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Saturday, 5 a.m. Sheepshead Bay, a tiny Brooklyn neighborhood that's more New England fishing village than Saturday Night Fever. On a dock surrounded by fishing boats, Bill Reddan, 60, NYPD Scuba's first official lead diver, is leafing through his photo album like a proud papa. If there's any reason why the men of NYPD Scuba love to tell sea tales, it may have something to do with Reddan: When it comes to bloodcurdling stories, he's the original Ancient Mariner.

"Here's a picture of our first air-sea rescue, in '75," says Reddan, who retired from NYPD Scuba in 1986 at the age of 46. "We had four people go under in a tug. My buddy was the first guy to jump out of the chopper. Guy weighed 200 and change, plus his 40-pound suit and 30-pound tank. When he jumped, fuckin' chopper nearly crashed. This is me trying to find a state trooper somebody rolled in a rug and dumped by Randalls Island. This here's the Harlem River. An hour in there and you're covered with snails."

Having once brought up bodies for the NYPD, Reddan now escorts local divers to New York's rich collection of historic wrecks. He has a drumlike belly and flamingo legs. What's left of his white hair is regulation ex-Marine trim. Told that Sergeant Cummings sends his regards, Reddan smiles and says, "Yeah, I diapered him."

Reddan, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, began his police career as a beat cop in Brooklyn. Back then, the department had a policy of not putting officers in jeopardy for dead bodies; commercial divers were hired instead. But like Cummings, Reddan grew up as a water rat; before joining the Marines, he was a champion free-diver. When the NYPD started Scuba in '67, the work was part-time. Reddan was promoted to lead diver after his supervisor jumped off a boat, caught his wedding ring on a screw, ripped off a finger, and retired.

"I saw a lot of weird stuff," he says, a nostalgic smile softening his weathered face. "Haitian voodoo shit—crates with eggs and feathers. One time, we found a jar with a heart in it—that turned out to be some student's science experiment. Another time, under the Verrazano Bridge, I pulled this body out by the armpits and the guy broke in half. I said, 'What the fuck?' and went down for the legs. Turns out, they were in a tomato crate filled with concrete. That happens a lot."

At the end of his career, Reddan had a chance to hunt down a series of mob victims. "We heard there were body parts all over the city. We got word that a head had been dropped in English Kills in Queens. I went down and came up with a box, but no head." This happened just a few days before Reddan was going to retire. It was Halloween, and he and some others came up with a practical joke. "We had this barge with a hole in it," he says. "We got a guy to put his head through it, poured ketchup on him, and covered him with a towel." Reddan called over the two detectives on the case, told them he'd found the head, and lifted the towel. "The guys almost fainted," he says with a laugh. They never found the head they were looking for.


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