Death on the River: Chapter 1


A brilliant sun warmed the air on a mid-April Sunday afternoon—a day that shouted with joy that spring had arrived at last.  The lovely weather drew many New Yorkers outdoors to revel in the departure of the cold and gloomy winter.  Among them were 46-year-old Vincent Viafore and his fiancé, 35-year old Angelika Graswald.

Vincent was an attractive man with dark hair that was beginning to recede.  His brown, downturned eyes appeared mournful, but for the perpetual twinkle residing in their depths.  His crooked, puckish grin readily expanded into a room-brightening smile.  His physique made it obvious that he’d remained physically active into his forties.

The high cheekbones and deep-set eyes in Angelika’s heart-shaped face hinted at her Russian ethnicity.  Her petite stature and perky, flirtatious demeanor added an elfin quality to her appearance.

The couple set out from their home in Poughkeepsie, New York, on the east side of the Hudson, with a pair of kayaks—Vince’s blue one strapped to the roof of his white Jeep Cherokee and Angelika’s red one stowed inside.  Before leaving town, they made two stops on Main Street: one at Wendy’s for a bite to eat, and another at the Sunoco service station where Angelika bought cigarettes.

They traversed the river to the west side on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge, decorated with portraits of Franklin and Eleanor.  The Ulster County side of the river greeted them with an awe-inspiring, fortress-like wall of chiseled gray stone rising on their left. They drove less than twenty miles down 9W, a busy, winding two-lane highway scattered with towns and villages, meandering through seedy stretches, stunning locales and historic markers.

They turned left at the entrance of the Kowawese Unique Area and New Windsor’s Plum Point Park, more than 100 acres of idyllic natural land with striking views of the river and mountains.  A short drive took them away from the hustle and bustle and into the shade of black walnut trees, white oaks and cottonwoods.  The small paved road soon turned to dirt and opened up onto a small sandy beach, with picnic tables by the rockier section of coast, and hiking trails—a favorite spot for fishermen, peace-seekers, and people launching canoes and kayaks out onto the Hudson.

The 315-mile waterway, named for explorer Henry Hudson, is the largest river wholly contained in the boundaries of New York State.  The Hudson originates in Tears-of-the-Clouds Lake on the southwest slope of Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in the Adirondacks.  It flows through the Hudson Valley and into the Atlantic Ocean in New York City, where it forms the geographical boundary between New York and New Jersey.

Looking from the park, where Angelika and Vince launched their kayaks, across the river, the most prominent sight is the stony outcrop of Pollepel Island, named for a local legend about an ethereal young girl named Polly Pell who was once stranded there.  More often referred to as Bannerman Island, named after its original developer, the spit of land snuggled close to the eastern bank, at a point where the river was a formidable expanse, narrowing a little further down into a faster water chute.

With calm waters that afternoon, the vastness of the river didn’t appear overwhelming to the active, athletic couple.  Around 4:15, Vince and Angelika climbed into their vessels and set off across the river for their mile and a quarter journey.  Stupendous views of the Hudson Highlands’ delightfully named Storm King Mountain, Breakneck Ridge, and Bull Hill served as a backdrop and added to the ambiance of their goal: the oft romanticized six-and-a-half acre island.  The patch of land was dominated by stunning ruins resembling a falling Scottish castle, the remains of a building erected for a far more utilitarian purpose—a storage facility.

The historical significance of this isle near West Point began during the Revolutionary War, when American forces ran a chain across the Hudson in a failed attempt to prevent the passage of British ships up the river. In the late 19th century, Frances Bannerman IV, a Scottish immigrant, collected weapons and ammunition from the Spanish-American War and the Civil War for resale.  He stuffed it all into a storeroom in New York City, but did not have the space to safely store the thirty million surplus munitions cartridges he had on hand.  With that in mind, he purchased the island in 1901, and began construction of a home and an arsenal with a sign reading “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” installed into the west-facing side of the building.  Construction ceased in 1918 when Bannerman died.  On August 15, 1920, the powder house exploded with enough force to shatter windows in nearby towns and send chunks of rock onto the railroad tracks on shore.  In 1967, New York State bought the property, cleared out the military merchandise, and conducted tours until an incredibly ferocious fire ripped through the grounds in 1969, causing massive damage to the buildings.

The structures were abandoned and neglected until 1995 when a Brooklyn realtor, Neal Caplan, moved his business to the town of Beacon and began the process of restoring the island.  The ruins remained fragile and precarious with propped up walls. The crumbling castle-like warehouse was cracked, pocked with holes, and surrounded by rubble.  The former arsenal was overgrown with vines and other vegetation and its upper floors appeared ready to cave in with the slightest misstep.

The gardens, on the other hand, were glorious.  Frances Bannerman’s wife, Helen, had created a cutting garden, a woodland landscaping, as well as elaborate herb and vegetable patches.  Caplan founded the Bannerman Island Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the historic island, and directed a true-to-the-period reconstruction of the gardens and its maintenance, with the help of volunteers like Angelika.

Angelika had fallen in love at first sight with the quirky island, the romance of the ruins, and the very presence of a castle in New York.  As a native of Europe, she was used to seeing castles all over the place, and finding one here was a surprise that embraced her heart like the comfort of home.

Before setting out from Plum Point a little before 5 that afternoon, Angelika sent a text to Barbara Gottlock, Bannerman’s volunteer coordinator who lived up on a hill within sight of the island.  “Hi, Barb, we’re kayaking today out of Plum Point and I’d like to stop on the island since I won’t be able to make it there this Wednesday. Please let me know if it’s a problem,” she wrote. “Otherwise, I’ll give you an update on how the geese are doing.”

They waited a few minutes for a response and passed the time chatting with a fisherman on the shore. As a volunteer, Angelika knew that she wasn’t supposed to visit the historic site outside of scheduled gardening hours, unless she was in an official tour group.

Not willing to wait any longer to hear back from Barbara, she paddled off with Vince, crossing the water to the island with no difficulty.  They landed at the harbor near the southeast corner of the island and mounted the steps that led to the residence.  Over the next two hours, they engaged in physical intimacy as they rambled through the gardens and castle grounds.  Angelika posed for provocative photographs in lingerie she’d packed for the trip, and Vince enjoyed the two beers he’d brought along.

Together they roamed the island, posing for pictures, checking out the status of the bulbs Angelika had planted the previous year, and simply enjoying the afternoon.  During their relaxing stroll, the sky darkened with ominous clouds gathering above the river.  A sharp gust caused the few brown, never-say-die leaves clinging to branches to rattle like snakes.  A clear warning that the weather was changing for the worse.

At one point, the couple climbed into their kayaks and attempted to navigate around the island to get to the beach area on the other side.  The roughness of the water, however, made it impossible, so they returned to resume their photo session with Angelika’s iPhone and Vince’s camera.

Just before 7pm, Wesley Gottlock, Bannerman’s tour coordinator and Barbara’s husband, pointed his telescope down to the island below.  “I think there are trespassers on the island—a man and a woman,” he told his wife.

“What are they doing?” Barbara asked.

“The woman looks like she’s dancing around and posing for a guy who’s taking photos,” Wesley said.  A few minutes later, he added, “They’re down on the dock now.”

Barbara checked her cell phone to see if anyone had messaged her about a visitor and saw the text from Angelika.  She wasn’t authorized to give permission to anyone to visit the island unattended, and so didn’t comment on that question.  She just texted back: “I think we saw you out there on the dock?  How were the geese?”

Angelika replied at 7:04: “We’re leaving now. I’ll send more pics later.  Geese are here.”

The sun was low on the horizon when Vince and Angelika set out to return to the mainland at 7:30 that evening.  The wind had gained intensity and drove the air in the opposite direction of the tidal current, creating chop and instability.  The nice, balmy day was now a memory as a chill filled the air, bringing the temperature closer to the frigid 46 degrees of the river itself.

As experienced as they were as kayakers, they were not familiar with this section of the Hudson, where the river approached the narrows and flowed with increased vigor even on a calm day.   Surprisingly, they did not follow standard safety procedures.  Typically, any kayaker would wear a personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket at all times, whether travelling across a roiling sea or a placid pond.  In New York, the law specifically required that precaution from November 1 to May 1 every year.  Angelika wore a PFD, but Vince did not.  Additionally, neither wore a dry suit with a base layer for added protection—a habit most kayakers followed until mid-May, when the Hudson’s water temperature finally reached sixty degrees.

To complicate matters further, their white-water vessels were not well suited for the conditions on this notorious river.  Longer boats—like a thirteen to fifteen foot long touring kayak with twin bulkheads—were recommended to ensure the required buoyancy in rough conditions.

At first, Vince enjoyed the challenge of the wild river and played around in his kayak like an excited boy in his first inflatable raft. He pulled in front of Angelika’s kayak and shouted, “Baby, this is an adventure of a lifetime!”

Exactly what happened after that light-hearted moment in the choppy water is up for debate, with conflicting conjectures and story lines.  But one thing remains fatally clear—the perilous waves swamped Vince’s kayak and he ended up in the brutal, cold water, separated from his kayak in conditions where his chances for survival were slim.

“I saw him struggling a bit,” Angelika said later.  “He was trying to paddle the waves because they were getting crazy and then I just saw him flip.”  Once Vince was in the frigid water, she said, “He kept watching me, and I kept watching him.”

In flip flops, shorts and a tee shirt, Vince was defenseless against the intense cold.  He grabbed for the kayak and tried to hold on tight.  With every passing minute, his grip grew more tenuous, his movements clumsier, as his motor skills deteriorated and the symptoms of hypothermia began to set in.  Soon he was hyperventilating, faster and deeper breaths with every passing second.   Spontaneous shivering racked his body, his teeth chattered uncontrollably.  His blood pressure would have dropped. His core body temperature would have plummeted.  The cold would have felt like a physical presence, a heavy weight wrapped around his chest, pressing in, making him gasp for air, squeezing the life out of his body. Within ten minutes in that frigid temperature, his lungs would have collapsed.  It is a cruel death, as desperation builds and panic overcomes cogent thought.

If Angelika was just looking on as he struggled, Vince endured more than physical torture, his emotions overcome with the horror of love betrayed for the last few moments of his life.  Angelika, however, claimed that she tried to get to him, shouting, “Just hold on—just hold on.”

At one point, she reported that he said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” But she minimized his fear. “Pfft, what are you talking about?  You’re going to make it, of course.”