Criminal investigation underway as gator attack victim recovers in Tampa

Airboat captain being investigated, on mend in Tampa

Photo taken Wednesday March 28, 2007.

Garrett Hubbard/File

Photo taken Wednesday March 28, 2007.

Tristan Spinski/Staff 
 Wally Weatherholt, left, helps David Dukes, center, and Dennis Canfield, right, all of Naples, unload the first catch of stone crab season at Kelly's Fish House in downtown Naples in 2011. Weatherholt had his hand bitten off by an alligator on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 while giving an airboat tour in the Everglades.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI, NDN // Buy this photo

Tristan Spinski/Staff Wally Weatherholt, left, helps David Dukes, center, and Dennis Canfield, right, all of Naples, unload the first catch of stone crab season at Kelly's Fish House in downtown Naples in 2011. Weatherholt had his hand bitten off by an alligator on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 while giving an airboat tour in the Everglades.

Photo with no caption
Video from NBC-2

When an employee at Capt. Doug's Everglades Tours called 911 for help Tuesday, she did not yet know who was hurt or how bad the injuries would be.

But as a boat from another airboat tour company brought Capt. Wallace "Wally" Weatherholt to the dock, the woman panicked.

"Oh, Jesus Christ, it's my boat captain!" said the employee, whose name was redacted from the 911 recording. "Oh, Jesus Lord Christ, it looks like he's lost his hand!"

Weatherholt, 63, was giving an Indiana family a tour of the Everglades on his airboat about 3:45 p.m. when a 9-foot alligator opened its jaws and latched onto his left hand, ripping it off, according to an incident report.

Wildlife officials tracked down the gator, euthanized it and took the hand from its stomach to the hospital, said Jorge Pino, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Photos of the attack, presumably from the tourists on board, were handed over to FWC for investigation. Pino said a criminal investigation is ongoing while the agency investigates claims that Weatherholt was feeding the alligator, which is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida.

"The more flamboyant you are, the more aggressive you are in getting an alligator to come close to the boat, the more tips you're going to end up getting. So they're doing it because they think it's the right thing to do to get more money," Pino said of airboat captains. "But again, you know, at what cost?"

Judy Chroniak-Hatt, who was on the boat with two other women and two young children, told NBC-2 that Weatherholt was hanging a fish over the side of the boat, and the alligator jumped up and grabbed it, then went back into the water.

The gator jumped up again, getting its two front feet inside the boat, Chroniak-Hatt told the TV station. She said she thought the reptile was going to tip the boat.

She said Weatherholt lost his hand when he was patting the water, trying to get the alligator to come up again.

"I was sitting there in the seat thinking, is this thing really biting him or is he playing a game," Chroniak-Hatt told NBC-2.

Captain Doug's manager Glenn Smith said he spoke with the family following the attack to make sure they were OK. None of the passengers were injured, although Smith said some were shaken up.

"The one kid, yeah, he was very upset," he said.

Smith said he was not sure if Weatherholt was feeding the alligator but that "all captains know it's illegal."

"We don't condone it," he said. "We certainly don't ask the captains to do it."

As of Wednesday, Weatherholt was hospitalized in "good spirits," Smith said. The Tampa Bay Times reported he had been transferred to Tampa General. Attempts to reattach his hand were unsuccessful, NBC-2 reported. A woman at Weatherholt's home would not answer the door for a reporter.

Details about a donation fund for Weatherholt will be posted on Captain Doug's website, www.captaindougs.net, later this week. Smith said the company carries workers' compensation but did not know if Weatherholt would be eligible if the FWC pursued charges.

According to Smith, who became manager about five years ago, it is the first time an airboat captain there has been attacked by an alligator. He said some captains have been reprimanded in the past for feeding alligators, typically when a passenger made a complaint.

"You don't know about things until after the fact," he said.

Pino, the FWC official, said the agency occasionally does undercover operations to make sure airboat captains and other people do not place themselves in danger by trying to feed the alligators.

"These animals have been here for millions of years and they're going to continue to be here," he said. "The human being is a smart one. We have to make the right decision. If we're going to be feeding an alligator, if we're going to be taunting an alligator, the likelihood that you will get in trouble and you will get bitten is pretty high."

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 36

ezdozit writes:

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you....Geez

np writes:

Its really too bad this happened . I think lesson learned is that Captains/ Guides/ or people living off of SWFL wildlife have a moral responsiblity to showing guests how to respond to our environment in a positive way .
This Captain has set a bad example of approaching gators to vistors and has paid dearly for this tactic.
I applaud FWC starting an investigation on this so the standards of eco touring is maintained on a safe and respectful attitude towards animals in our enviroment .

HAP writes:

About time FWC, he's just one of thousands who abuse the license they hold. They all need to go to jail.

Beachtowel writes:

in response to HAP:

About time FWC, he's just one of thousands who abuse the license they hold. They all need to go to jail.

Your an idiot

DownsouthGOTman writes:

The guy is an idiot. You don't get within closing distance of a predator without firepower or stupidity. Looks like the latter gave him what he deserved.

Been_around writes:

If you donate to that fund you are contributing to the breaking of the law and adding to the stupidity of this whole situation, and you are just as much an idiot.

Frankly2 writes:

So sad they killed the gator. Gave up it's life because of the stupidity of men.

lynner888 writes:

in response to Frankly2:

So sad they killed the gator. Gave up it's life because of the stupidity of men.

Agreed!

goodlander10 writes:

how can they set up a fund for someone that was breaking the law,? hope that he saved some of those funds (tips) that he got, also maybe others will stop doing the same thing

lapalabra writes:

WHY?
Losing a hand isn't punishment enough?
Want to make an example of him? I think he has already done that in spades.
Need to fine him for state money? Please.
Want him to learn his lesson so he doesn’t do it again? Think he has.
Just because it’s the law? Justice has already been served. Lost limb on top of huge medical bills will both cripple this man for a long time.
Want him to suffer more? Let he who is without sin…
WHY, then?

ehamneggs writes:

Let’s give this captain a "hand" for giving our tourist a Florida vacation they will never forget

strudelbaby writes:

lapalabra: Why? So since he was injured while breaking the law he shouldn't be punished?

beachtowel: If you are going to call someone an idiot, at least use the correct form of "your." It should be "you're."

Notthesame writes:

Almost every gator attack is provoked in some way, just like the kid swimming at the crystal years ago, those witnessess didnt tell the truth about that boy provoking that gator. It didnt just swim in to the area and bite him. Just like this one wasnt trying to get another fish, Dont Feed The Gators!!!!!!! They get more active and aggressive in the summer as well. If a guy cut his hand off with a chainsaw, would we hold a benefit for him? There are plenty of amputees functioning just fine all over the place, long road ahead of him, but he'll adapt.

munchkinsdaddy2 writes:

in response to lapalabra:

WHY?
Losing a hand isn't punishment enough?
Want to make an example of him? I think he has already done that in spades.
Need to fine him for state money? Please.
Want him to learn his lesson so he doesn’t do it again? Think he has.
Just because it’s the law? Justice has already been served. Lost limb on top of huge medical bills will both cripple this man for a long time.
Want him to suffer more? Let he who is without sin…
WHY, then?

Couldn't have said it better myself

wentfishn writes:

More RNN.

wrightconnection writes:

in response to lapalabra:

WHY?
Losing a hand isn't punishment enough?
Want to make an example of him? I think he has already done that in spades.
Need to fine him for state money? Please.
Want him to learn his lesson so he doesn’t do it again? Think he has.
Just because it’s the law? Justice has already been served. Lost limb on top of huge medical bills will both cripple this man for a long time.
Want him to suffer more? Let he who is without sin…
WHY, then?

This "captain" broke the law and should be punished. If we use your logic we should not punish people who are at fault in an automobile accident if they get hurt. "Just because it's the law". You bet, BECAUSE IT'S THE LAW! You are right about one thing...he probably won't do it again.

upagain writes:

Fine....Loss of One hand, pay the clerk.

MIF writes:

I've been on that tour before, and the captain (not sure if it was the same guy) was very agressive with the aligator to impress us. He fed him too.

ChrisF79 writes:

in response to Beachtowel:

Your an idiot

When you say, "Your an idiot," you should use the correct form of "you're." Otherwise, there are two idiots.

alexia6ciula writes:

in response to np:

Its really too bad this happened . I think lesson learned is that Captains/ Guides/ or people living off of SWFL wildlife have a moral responsiblity to showing guests how to respond to our environment in a positive way .
This Captain has set a bad example of approaching gators to vistors and has paid dearly for this tactic.
I applaud FWC starting an investigation on this so the standards of eco touring is maintained on a safe and respectful attitude towards animals in our enviroment .

Very well put.
Lets dont forget also the captain responsability for the safety of people on board. The gator tried to jump on the boat as result of him feeding it.

beautifulday writes:

in response to lapalabra:

WHY?
Losing a hand isn't punishment enough?
Want to make an example of him? I think he has already done that in spades.
Need to fine him for state money? Please.
Want him to learn his lesson so he doesn’t do it again? Think he has.
Just because it’s the law? Justice has already been served. Lost limb on top of huge medical bills will both cripple this man for a long time.
Want him to suffer more? Let he who is without sin…
WHY, then?

ENOUGH SAID!! At least someone on this website has a heart!!!! The man has already lost a hand, GOD Only knows what will happen with the bacteria and infection, Could get worst....theres people that do way way worst things than feed a gator and don't face HUGE fines and 6 months in jail and loss of license to work???? Sure the man made a bad judgement call..."Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" You people need a real life!!!!

Nakose_Haco writes:

Most tour operators in the area don't do this. This local economy was built upon tourism, and Naples would not exist without it. I hope this will not have a negative impact upon other tour businesses who do practice ethical ecotourism standards.

NikonD90 writes:

I bet he wont do that again ! !

Carrot_Stick writes:

in response to Beachtowel:

Your an idiot

Hey beachtowel, go sit on your towel and let the sun fry the few remaining brain cells you have. Otherwise you seem pretty worthless.

But thanks for the humor in your post.....someone with such poor spelling call someone else an idiot for simply stating something that is true. Wow, now that is comedy!

Ask these tour operators how many bags of marshmellows they go through every week! They are breaking the law and if FWC would be more capable of enforcing the laws (thanks Rick Scott) then accidents like this would not happen.

Accidents like these are easily preventable....follow the law and show common sense. He did it to himself...done. It is a shame that an alligator had to die because of some idiot red-neck.

NikonD90 writes:

in response to arrow:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

They need to charge this s----- fool for murder, they killed the gator to get his hand back, the gator only does what gators do. If he didn’t feed the gator s----- and brake the law he wont have lost his arm , R I P gator . For doing your natural thing.

Sanity writes:

in response to wrightconnection:

This "captain" broke the law and should be punished. If we use your logic we should not punish people who are at fault in an automobile accident if they get hurt. "Just because it's the law". You bet, BECAUSE IT'S THE LAW! You are right about one thing...he probably won't do it again.

Apples and oranges. The captain suffered permanent, crippling loss of a limb and nobody else was hurt. Investigating or even filing criminal charges at this point is really unnecessary and heavy handed.

Do you think he's going to use his other hand again to do the same thing?

Just let the man recover and let the reality of losing a hand be a reminder to him and all other boat captains the dangers of messing with wildlife.

lf_photo writes:

sounds like he put his passengers at risk too.

dmarko326 writes:

in response to munchkinsdaddy2:

Couldn't have said it better myself

You all fail to realise why the law is there in the first place.
Feeding Alligators will make them fearless of people (100% of the time proven). Had Capt Doug's been located close to a populated area, many of these gators would certainly become nuisance and a threat to children and pets alike. Bull gators would be a nightmare.
Even though Capt Dougs is not near a populated area, the law still stands. ANd for good reason.
These outfits are only there to make a buck animating the gators through feeding and teasing them. Otherwise, there is no benefit for this stuff to take place.

I take the FWC side on this one.

14amm88 writes:

U ppl r so disgusting.... I know Wally n his family he is a good man... None of u live in everglades only make a little money 5 months of the year n barely eat the rest... no one is considering that he will suffer the rest of his life or how his family feels... Where is ur compassion he was trying to feed his family... Everyone is guilty of something

gotero writes:

in response to Beachtowel:

Your an idiot

Please do not insult idiots

Beachtowel writes:

I wish this captain a speedy recovery. I feel for him and his family.

JakeBrake writes:

He lost his hand I think that's punishment enough. Hey grouper troopers how about coming over to river reach and writing some fines to the dumb bottom here that have been told time and time agian don't feed the gators.

jetson567#259758 writes:

in response to Beachtowel:

I wish this captain a speedy recovery. I feel for him and his family.

Likewise!

TonySoprano writes:

My donation is going to a soldier who lost a limb fighting for this country.

wrightconnection writes:

in response to Sanity:

Apples and oranges. The captain suffered permanent, crippling loss of a limb and nobody else was hurt. Investigating or even filing criminal charges at this point is really unnecessary and heavy handed.

Do you think he's going to use his other hand again to do the same thing?

Just let the man recover and let the reality of losing a hand be a reminder to him and all other boat captains the dangers of messing with wildlife.

It's not apples and oranges. You say nobody else was hurt...passengers on the boat were clearly shaken, a little boy was VERY upset over the scarey event. The gator was killed to retrieve the hand. From what the article says, the gator almost tipped the boat and could have sent everyone into the gator infested water. I already said that I bet he won't do that again. He should be charged with feeding alligators. He knew better but did it anyway. He's supposed to be setting an example for the rest of us. Here's more food for thought. If a man breaks into someones home and gets his hand blown off by a shotgun fired by the homeowner, don't you think the intruder should be charged with breaking and entering? I guess is it o.k. with you that the perp got hurt breaking the law and that's enough punishment. Do the crime, do the time. We cannot let law breakers go unpunished, it's simple.

JJGNaples writes:

What''s done is done. Wally is a good person and this is a horrible thing that happened. Looking forward I will help in my own small way by donating to the fund to assist Wally and his family. He is a gentle and hardworking man and I know he will work diligently to move forward noting what occurred, make amends and whatever it takes for their lives. God bless all! You are in my prayers...

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