In our November issue, I wrote about Conrad Callicoatte, the 80-year-old sailor who died in late June at White Rock Lake. When I pitched the story, I thought it would end up being sort of four profiles in one, telling the story of Callicoatte, White Rock Lake, the boat clubs there, and also the Dallas Police dive team, who recovered Callicoatte’s body from the murky lake bottom. But as I kept reporting, Callicoatte’s story started to push everything else to the side. By the time I was about three-quarters of the way through writing, I realized I wouldn’t be able to include much about the dive team, even though I was fascinated by it.
All of which is to say, here is my interview with Sgt. Rod Dillon, who was a member of the dive team for 10 years and on the force for 36 (mostly in property crimes). He retired a few days after I talked to him on a weekday afternoon at St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin.
How many people are on the dive team? Twenty-four. That’s fully staffed. We had 18. We got permission to add six, because there is nobody on the dive team in a permanent duty capacity. Everyone on the dive team works another job as a full-time position in the department, including Terry Varden, the dive team commander. I think Terry wears about four hats, officially, all of which require more time than the dive team does.
What is your other job? I’m an investigative supervisor of property crime. I have been for about 11 years. Burglaries, thefts, robberies—stuff like that. Animal cruelty.
I remember when they made that show here about property crimes. Fox had a sitcom here. Oh, The Good Guys. I watched one episode of that. That’s all I could do.
Yeah, it was just funny to watch that and ask why would they set it in Dallas if it wasn’t really in Dallas. It’s some weird— It was so bad. It was just—I know it was supposed to be a comedy and everything, but it wasn’t any good as a comedy. It just didn’t work at all.
OK, so why did you want to be on the dive team? You have to be an advanced diver or a rescue diver before you can apply to be on our dive team. You go through an oral interview with the instructors on the team. Then you go through physical tryouts, which are cool, where you are blacked out. We have blackout masks that you wear underwater so you cannot see, because that’s the conditions we dive under. One of the first things you have to find out from someone is can they mentally operate without being able to see. Some people can’t. If you’re claustrophobic at all, then you can’t do it.
So, we have them do some skills. Do some basic SCUBA skills. We judge them underwater. Then the instructors, after everybody is finished, will get together and say alright, yes, yes, yes, or no. If somebody has complaints or internal complaints, or for whatever reason, they don’t do well in the oral interviews, we don’t take them. If they don’t pass the oral interview, they don’t get to the physical interview, because that takes a lot of time. This last time it was two full days. We had six people that we were trying to put through. In all, I think that we had 10 that interviewed, one decided he didn’t want to do it. A couple we washed out in the oral interviews. One washed out in the physical interview.
Is that pretty typical? Yeah, that’s about right. It is now. We had one guy that we had concerns with physically. We almost called an ambulance for him during the tryouts at the pool, because you have to swim 800 yards. You do an 800-yard swim. We pulled him out of the pool. He finished it, but we had to pull him out. And he ended up later, actually, about a year later he went for a physical, and the doctor found a heart problem.
Where do you do the physical trials at? We’re very fortunate to have an Olympic-size diving pool with a diving well in it that is 18 feet deep that Dallas Independent School District runs. It’s Loos Field House. There’s a natatorium with a pool, football field, basketball. It’s all right there in Addison. It’s absolutely perfect for our usage. The diving well is big enough that we can run all of our skills at depth. We can actually—like on our rescue attempts, you have five seconds to hit the water once you know there is an emergency, and you’re going straight down to a diver down the line. That’s deep enough to start to have to equalize. That’s something we don’t think about equalizing when you’re going down for a rescue, but a diver going down has to equalize his ears, too. It’s deep enough that you actually get some pressure.
When did you start diving? In 2002. I actually dove once in the early ’80s. I thought I had a ruptured ear drum, because I didn’t equalize. I dove in Aruba, and I either didn’t listen to the instructor well enough or he didn’t cover equalization techniques well. One or the other. Let’s blame me. Either way, I never equalized. We were at 30 feet. It was the first vacation I had taken on my own. First airplane trip I had ever taken. I mean, the whole gambit. It was the first time I’d ever been diving. I thought when we came up, “This sucks. My ear hurts.”
When was this? Probably about ’83.
OK, so you came up. So I came up and said, “This sucks. My ear hurts. I’ve got a blown eardrum.” I thought I was blowing bubbles out of my ear. I was trying to equalize so hard, instead of just coming up a few feet. So, fast forward 20 years later, I’m at a resort in Jamaica, the diving instructor comes by and says, “Hey, you want to go diving with us? It’s included in the resort. It’s free.” I said, “I’ve got a bad ear or whatever.” He said, “Nah. We’ll work you through it.” I went and he did. It was perfectly fine. It doesn’t matter how deep I go. I learned how to equalize, and I’ve been diving ever since. I’ve gotten about 350 dives in or so plus ungodly amounts of training time in the pool.
So, you still like it, even though it’s part of your job. Oh, god, yeah. I go all the time.
Where is your favorite place to go? Depends on what you want to do. If you want to go with a group and be independent and go shore diving, then its Bonaire. If you’re going with, say, friends on a vacation that is not pure diving, then Grand Cayman. If you’re going on a technical dive trip, using re-breathers and going deep into a cave, also Grand Cayman. Live-aboards? Its a toss between the Bahamas, outer islands, and the three Cayman islands. Of course, Stuart Cove has probably some of the best shark feeding expeditions. I did a week down there for Discovery Channel when they were doing Shark Week, back in 2011. We did the Shark Shootout contest down there with all of the photographers. Steven Frink is editor of Alert Diver magazine. He was our main photographer with us that week. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
How did you get into photography? I’ve been in photography—I was in the high school yearbook, high school photography. I took photography in college as a side course. I’ve always been interested in it. Always. I don’t think I’ve ever been diving without a camera, because I drowned my first camera because it was supposed to be a snorkel camera. I took it SCUBA diving. It lasted three or four dives. I have a pretty good underwater rig. I shoot a Canon 5D Mark 3 for topside work. I just got back from Playa del Carmen. I shot my first wedding down there. It came out really well.
Is that something you want to do more now that you are going to be retired, shooting weddings? Oh, absolutely. I can do that. Those are kind of few and far between gigs though. I don’t care if pays anything. Just that I get to do it is fine. I took mermaid costumes with me, because the bride said she wanted to do something different, so we reenacted the movie Splash, a scene from that where he brings her out of the ocean in his arms. So, we had the groom bring the bride out, dressed in a mermaid outfit coming out of the ocean. It came out really well.
OK, I think I’ve taken us pretty far off track. How often does the dive team get called out? Two weeks ago, we got called out three times in one day. On a Sunday, we got called out three times in one day.
What are the odds? We might go three months and not get called out. It varies tremendously. On average, probably 12 times a year, but that’s a big wide average.
Right. So, its White Rock and where else? Oh, we’ll go anywhere we can drive to. That Sunday, we had an escapee from juvenile over in West Dallas. Security chased her. She went into a pond and didn’t come back up.
I heard about that. So, we got called out on that. Our department was out there in their little rubber raft, searching around the surface, poking their paddles into the weeds and stuff, so she got caught up. I was actually watching them, becauseI had just rolled up and was walking down to the water’s edge and I saw a couple of my guys were already there. I stopped because I saw the fire department boat. Something different was going on there. I saw one of them shove his paddle into the weeds, and then I saw everybody with the fire department jump over to the other side because bodies aren’t supposed to move when you hit them with a paddle. Well, she wasn’t dead. She was hiding in the cat tails, so when they poked her with a paddle, she jumped and that scared the hell out of the firemen.
[laughs] I bet. Do you keep your gear with you all the time? No. Most of our gear, as in our tanks, ropes, our search equipment, all of it is in a trailer that’s kept at one of the police stations along with a Hummer. We have an H2 Hummer. It was a drug seizure vehicle. Our trailer was a seizure out of the pound because we don’t have a budget. We don’t have money to buy stuff with. So most of our stuff is in that trailer. We are recovery. We are not rescue. That being said, we have had one of our divers do a rescue. A guy had an epileptic seizure and went off into the lake with his car. The car was sinking and the guy had his sunroof open. One of our divers, he was actually a life guard down at San Marcos or somewhere, one of the big places with the natural springs.
How many people go out? We have a minimum of six. On any given dive, we’ll have a minimum of six people. If we’re working from one of the game warden’s boats, we can only get four people in their boats, so you’ll have—usually your team commander will stay on shore, along with your safety officer. We’ll check everything out. Check all the guys out, then put them on the boat. You have one line handler for each diver. So, you’ve got an operations diver that is down below doing the search. You’ve got a safety diver, a rescue diver, on the surface ready to go down and save the operations diver should he become entangled. So far, we’ve only had one incident where we had to send in a rescue diver to get the first diver unentangled, to cut him free. That was on trot lines and netting that was wrapped around an old car at Lake Ray Hubbard. The operations diver became entangled in it. All the old hooks and stuff, so we had to get out there and we had to cut him free. It’s the only time we have actually had to do it for real. So, you always have a rescue diver up top, ready to go, and he’s supposed to hit the water in about 5 seconds.
How long has the department had a dive team? An official dive team? Since 2008, the same year I joined. We were recognized under Chief Kunkle. And [former commander] Captain Jack Bragg is the one who got his team officially recognized because he pestered the command staff so long, so many times over so many years, that they finally said, sure, fine, here’s your dive team. Go away.
What else are y’all called out for besides bodies? Bodies and cars. Cars is the No. 1 item. Bodies are No. 2. Guns are No. 3. We just had a murder trial on a gun. We recovered an assault rifle out of West Dallas that, oh, my God—nasty. I mean, just bad water. The bad water and the decaying bodies are why we wear what are called dry suits. A fully encapsulated suit that doesn’t allow water through. We also wear a full face mask so that we don’t accidentally ingest any lake water, because lake water is not treated. You’re not supposed to drink it. I have before. Dammit. Three days you’re sick—if you just happen to catch that one microbe, it’s in you. It’s luck of the draw.