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Chicago's Undetermined Drownings: Debunking the myths

Chicago's Undetermined Drownings: Debunking the myths
Chicago's Undetermined Drownings: Debunking the myths 04:41

CHICAGO (CBS)-- Undetermined. That's the ruling many Chicago-area families receive when their missing loved ones are found in the waters of Cook County.

Particularly, it's when police have little to no evidence of how the victim ended up drowning.

The incomplete picture leaves many on social media piecing together what they think happened. Often grizzly theories go viral, seen thousands of times.

CBS 2 dug into the facts. 

Daniel Sotelo, Elise Malary, Inaki Bascaran, Peter Salvino, and the list goes on. 


Faces of those deeply loved have been posted on street lights and screens with calls for help from the people who loved them most. 

Alexis Martinez lost a loved one to drowning.   

"I was driving home last night and it pops in my heads sometimes, 'I'm going to call Elise,' " she said. 

But Elise Malary went missing year one ago this month. One week after she went missing, CBS 2 reported her body was found in Lake Michigan near the Chicago, Evanston border.

"She would be that quiet voice in the room and people would be forced to listen," Martinez said. "We need more people like that."

Martinez saw Elise fight for civil rights in her job at the Illinois Attorney General's office and with the Chicago Therapy Collective, which advocates for the local LGBTQ+ community.

CBS 2 wanted to know whether these cases of missing Chicagoans whose bodies turned up in waters of Cook County represented a trend change, to either verify or debunk the rumor mill. 

Referring to the viral TikTok videos, CBS 2's Chris Tye asked Martinez whether she has heard these killer rumors.

"I've heard of this that there is a serial killer pushing people off the rocks," Martinez said. "It's a possibility. If there is a serial killer component it's something that should be considered and not just dismissed."

But medical examiners and police investigators say there is definitively no serial killer.

CBS 2 looked into the last eight years of drowning data in Cook County. The graph shows all drownings, from homicides to suicides, from bathtubs to lakefronts.

This map shows all drownings on Chicago waterways over that time. Those in blue were deemed accidents and the incidents in red were considered undetermined.  

The number of drownings fluctuated from under 50 to over 70 per year. Over those eight years, there's been a total of five drownings classified as "homicides."

"When we're looking for evidence of foul play, we're looking for any blunt force injury," Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said. 

The consistency of drowning cases classified as an "undetermined" manner of death jumped out to our CBS 2 researchers, who combed through the evidence and records from the Medical Examiner's office.

And over those eight years, there were 148 cases ruled "undetermined."

"We may call it a homicide or we'll say undetermined and less that we're seeing these injuries that are suspicious of foul play," Arunkumar said. "If they're just minor injuries and they're not significant enough to tell us that resulted in them drowning."

In Elise's case, the cause of death was ruled drowning and the manner of death was ruled undetermined.   

"You speculate, you guess, there's a considerable number of people in the community that want to demand more answers from the police," Martinez said. 

Martinez said she is surprised that Elise's case has stayed static. 

"With the advent of social media, everything is reported," Martinez said. "The megaphone is much louder."

A louder megaphone and a longer series of questions are left unanswered. The undetermined findings leave loved ones hoping for more clarity in the murky final hours of these lives lost.

"The other part of me wants to know what happened, how did it come to that?" Martinez said. "It just adds to the hurt, 'what if?"

Since our report, the cases of Peter Salvino and Krzysztof Szubert have been ruled accidental drownings. Another body, identified, as Joel Orduno, was found in the river. That case remains under investigation. 

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