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Police Find Sunken Motorboat At Center Of Fatal Excursion

(STMW) -- The Chicago Police Marine Unit, after scanning the depths of Lake Michigan daily for two months, has found the 33-foot motorboat that sank off the coast of Chicago in late May, killing three of four occupants.

The discovery, which was made July 31, offers new hope to investigators trying to figure out what caused the boat to go down, a police source told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Police divers, after seeing a sonar image of an anomaly on the lake floor, descended into the water and located the boat 60 feet below. It had settled upright into a layer of silt about 7 miles offshore from the Adler Planetarium.

The sonar image was provided by a private salvage firm that searched in conjunction with police boats.

Police divers photographed the vessel and probed its cabin with a remote control submersible.

They were able to recover several personal items — including a pair of women's shoes found sitting on the boat's deck "as if they'd just been taken off and placed there," the source said. The items were returned to grateful family members.

The initial inspection offered no clear answer of what went horribly wrong on the evening of May 31 when the boat began taking on water.

After locating the boat, Chicago police handed the investigation to the Illinois Conservation Police. A conservation police spokesman could provide no details. And it was unclear if the boat would be raised.

According to information offered to authorities by the sole survivor, a 29-year-old man found floating by a fisherman 12 hours after the boat sank, all four people aboard scrambled to bail the boat out, a source told the Sun-Times.

The boat's ship-to-shore radio was not working, and there was no cellphone coverage to call for help — the boat was too far from shore.

Flares were fired into the air, but no one saw them, the source said.

The engine began to smoke and caught fire, power was lost and the bilge pump failed, according to police. An alarm panel sounded and the engine shut down, according to Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Brian Dykens.

As the boat sank about 8 p.m., the four people on board went into the water. Everyone on the boat could swim, the source said.

The lone survivor told authorities he distributed life preservers before the boat went down.

A fisherman found the man early the next morning wrapped in five life preservers with a floating boat bumper tucked under his legs, allowing part of this body to remain above the waterline. He was suffering from hypothermia and, according to the fisherman, was "totally delirious." His memories of the aftermath were muddled, the source said.

The body of Ashley Haws, a 26-year-old attorney, Megan Kathleen Blenner, 27, and the boat's owner, Orest Sopka, 30, have all been recovered from Lake Michigan.

Sopka, when not using his boat — a newer-model Rinker — would rent it out short-term through a company that manages the transactions, the source said.

Several months before the fatal trip, Sopka's boat had been badly damaged during one of the rentals and underwent about $48,000 worth of repairs, the source said. The boat, which was kept in Burnham Harbor, experienced electrical problems and other issues after that, the source said.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2014. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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