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True Crime: Murder on an Arctic Ice Floe

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Hypothetical situation: seven castaways have been living on an uncharted island in the Pacific for 15 years after a shipwreck. One member of the group is an eternal screw-up, the constant thorn in everyone's side, and one day the Skipper finally snaps. And the very next day a Coast Guard cutter shows up out of the blue and rescues the rest of the gang. What is the Skipper's fate? Can a person be tried for a murder committed in an unclaimed land where there technically is no law? Such was the dilemma faced by the U.S. Justice Department when a technician shot and killed a meteorologist on a remote Arctic ice floe in 1970.

The Real World: Ice Island T-3

The ice island known as T-3 was approximately seven-miles long and three-miles wide when a 20-man group of researchers arrived there in May 1970. The kidney-shaped ice floe floated rather aimlessly in a clockwise direction around the Canadian/Alaskan sector of the Polar Basin. Despite its extremely remote and frigid location (the average temperature hovered around -40°F), the men had trailer homes and research huts that they made as cozy as possible—some would later describe it as a "frat house" atmosphere—for the duration of their five-month assignment. Bennie Lightsy, an Air Force veteran and employee of the United States Weather Bureau, had been designated the station manager by the Arctic Research Laboratory. Also stationed there were Donald "Porky" Leavitt, another Arctic Research Lab employee, and Mario Escamilla, an employee of General Motors Defense Research Laboratory.

Had extensive background checks been commonplace in 1970, Porky Leavitt probably would not have been assigned to such an isolated post.

Unbeknownst to his co-workers, he had a serious drinking problem. Booze was not unheard of on the island, but it was available in limited quantities depending upon how much the supply planes brought in. The researchers paid for luxury items like liquor out of their own pockets, so they were naturally protective of their individual stashes. Porky apparently drained his own supply (small cargo planes can only carry so much) so quickly between deliveries that he threatened fellow researchers with a meat cleaver on three separate occasions in order to gain access to their alcohol stash.

An Arctic Bender

On the afternoon of July 16, 1970, Mario Escamilla was working at the GM hut when he received a phone call from his roommate, Charles Parodi. Parodi warned him that Porky was on a bender and had stolen Escamilla's jug of homemade raisin wine. Escamilla went first to the station's common "store" and grabbed a rifle and loaded it, mindful of Leavitt's previous violent outbursts. He burst into Leavitt's trailer where he found Porky and Bennie Lightsy drinking a combination of 190 proof ethyl alcohol cut with grape juice and Escamilla's raisin wine. Escamilla retrieved what remained of his wine, warned the two to stay out of his belongings and returned to his trailer.

Shortly after Escamilla returned to his trailer he heard footsteps approaching, and assuming it was Porky (and being well-acquainted with Porky's violent streak), picked up the loaded rifle. The person approaching was not Porky Leavitt but Bennie Lightsy (pictured), who allegedly began to argue about the "selfishness" of Escamilla regarding his raisin wine. No one but Mario Escamilla knows for sure what happened next, but according to him, while he was arguing with Lightsy, he also gesticulated with the rifle. He accidentally bumped the rifle during the discussion and it fired. Lightsy was hit and died shortly afterward, despite efforts by Escamilla to stem the bleeding (there were no medical personnel on the island).


After U.S. government personnel were advised of the crime, Escamilla airlifted by helicopter—a meticulous maneuver that involved in-air refueling over the Arctic Ocean—to Thule, Greenland, where he was then transferred to an airplane and flown to Dulles Airport. That disjointed return home was just one of many factors that made Escamilla's resulting trial so difficult from a legal standpoint.

Bennie Lightsy's death occurred on a floating island that didn't technically belong to any nation. At the time of the crime, T-3 drifted mainly in the Canadian sector of the Arctic Ocean, but the personnel involved were all Americans. And then there was that clause in International Law that stated an offender should be tried in the district into which he is first brought (in Escamilla's case, that meant Greenland). Many months of legal wrangling ensued. Canada eventually decided not to get involved and left the decision to the United States. It was ultimately decided that the floating ice island would be considered a "vessel" and that the case would be heard in Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia, under the auspices of standard U.S. maritime law.

It Depends on What the Meaning of 'Vessel' Is

One of the most influential pieces of evidence entered on Escamilla's behalf was the rifle that fired the fatal shot. It was run through standard ballistic tests and was found to be defective—the gun discharged when bumped against a solid object, with no finger near the trigger. This finding gave credence to Escamilla's claim that the gun had just "gone off" while he was arguing with Lightsy. Along with the literal smoking gun evidence, the defense also presented a parade of character witnesses who swore that Escamilla was an easy-going, non-violent man. The jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the judge sentenced him to three years in prison with parole possible after three months. Judge Oren R. Lewis added a provision to the sentence: Escamilla could be released any time after 60 days and his sentence would be stayed depending upon the outcome of his appeal.

Escamilla's attorneys did eventually successfully appeal his sentence by questioning the legality of the definitions of many key terms used during the trial, such as "vessel" (can an ice floe really be considered in the same category as a ship?) and "ice floe" (what's the difference between an ice island and an occupiable ice floe?). Mario Escamilla never went back to jail after those initial 60 days and now lives in California. Ice island T-3 ultimately exited the Arctic Ocean via the Fram Strait and broke up off the coast of Greenland in 1984.

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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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