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Widow asks friends to recover abalone diver's body from Sonoma Coast

  • Craig Willes

One week ago today, Linda Willes of seaside Timber Cove stood on the rocky shoreline a few miles from home and saw her husband dive below the surface on his third descent for abalone and not come back up.

Two days of anguish later, state and county emergency personnel had not found the body of 56-year-old Craig Willes through the thick kelp in Salt Point Park's Fisk Mill Cove, a popular but often perilous place to free-dive — without air tanks — for abalone.

By then desperate, Linda Willes knocked on the door of fellow Timber Cove resident and avid diver Jason O'Donnell.

“She asked me if I could help bring her husband home,” he said. He told her he would try.

“To be honest,” he said, “I didn't want to give her false hope.”

At 41, O'Donnell is a general contractor who has switched to diving on the Sonoma Coast. Last year, he went in on 204 days.

A member of a small and tight community of free-divers who savor the rugged stretch of coast north of Jenner, O'Donnell works as an abalone and spear-fishing guide and mentor. He felt that he had to try to find Craig Willes.

As O'Donnell made preparations to go into Fisk Mill Cove the following morning, Thursday, his wife, Amanda, suggested that he make a plea for assistance on one of his favorite websites. He went onto the Nor Cal Underwater Hunters site and asked if any fellow divers would go with him to look for the lost diver's body.

He chokes up as he recounts that four men dropped whatever they were doing and headed for the northern Sonoma Coast.

The four were Heath Blackwell of Healdsburg, Jack Johnson of Richmond, Ken Butler of Benicia and Robert Winn of Colusa.

O'Donnell informed State Parks lifeguards and a buddy who's a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy that he and the other civilian divers were going into Fisk Mill Cove to look for the lost man.

About 10 Thursday morning, Linda Willes accompanied the divers up Highway 1 to Fisk Mill Cove and pointed out where her husband, an experienced abalone diver, had failed to resurface.

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