SYDNEY, Australia – An American tourist was charged with murder in Australia on Friday for allegedly drowning his wife during a honeymoon dive on the Greet Barrier Reef.
Police immediately began preparing a warrant for the arrest of the suspect, Daniel Gabriel Watson of Birmingham, Alabama — the first step in what are likely to be drawn-out extradition proceedings.
Watson faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of murder. His lawyer did not immediately enter a plea, but he has argued that the evidence does not support any criminal charge and that police have seemed intent on blaming him anyway.
The suspect was not present in court and his exact whereabouts were unclear. The charge was formally made by a coroner who conducted a months-long inquest into whether there were suspicious circumstances in the death of Christina Mae Watson on Oct. 22, 2003.
The 26-year-old woman, known as Tina, drowned while diving on a historic shipwreck near the northeastern city of Townsville as her husband of 11 days looked on.
Watson, usually called Gabe, declined to testify at the inquest, although videotaped interviews with police formed a key part of evidence before it.
In the interviews, Watson said his new bride apparently had trouble a few minutes into the dive, panicked and clutched at his mask, pushing it off his face. He described seeing her, with her eyes wide and arms outstretched toward him, sinking into the deep.
The groom, an experienced diver who had completed a dive rescue course, was acting as a so-called dive buddy for his less-experienced wife. He told police he decided to go for help rather than following her to the sea floor and attempting a rescue.
One of the dive leaders pulled Tina Watson to the surface. Efforts to resuscitate her failed.
Queensland state coroner David Glasgow's inquest heard that police, who initially believed the death to be an accident, started to become suspicious when Watson changed some details of his account.
An autopsy found no pre-existing medical condition that could have explained Tina Watson's death. Tests showed there was nothing wrong with her diving gear.
In his findings handed down Friday, Glasgow said the exact circumstances of Tina Watson's fate may never be known, but there was enough evidence of foul play to justify a murder charge against her husband.
"There are only two persons who know what in fact actually occurred," Glasgow said. "One is Tina, who cannot tell us, and the other is Gabe."
He formally indicted Watson on a charge of killing his wife.
"I am satisfied there is evidence of sufficient reliability ... that a properly instructed jury could make a finding of guilt against David Gabriel Watson on a charge of murder," Glasgow said.
Watson's lawyer, Steve Zillman, did not enter a plea on behalf of his client, or offer any other statement.
Zillman argued during the inquest that Watson had no motive to kill his wife and that the evidence did not support a criminal charge. He accused police of being determined to blame Watson for the death, no matter what the evidence showed.
But Glasgow said Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, had given evidence of a possible motive. Thomas said his daughter told him that shortly before they were married, Gabe Watson asked his fiancee to increase her life insurance and change the policy to make him the sole beneficiary. Thomas said his daughter decided to lie to Watson that she had made the changes.
Tommy Thomas, Tina Watson's mother Cindy Thomas and other family members watched Glasgow read out his findings in court via a live video link to the U.S. state of Alabama.
Tommy Thomas was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying the family welcomed Friday's result as backing their suspicions about Watson.
"We're actually relieved to hear the coroner's findings," Thomas said. "It's something that we have dealt with for quite some time and it validated our beliefs."
Police Detective Inspector Warren Webber said a warrant would be issued in Queensland state for Watson's arrest. This would be handed to prosecutors, who would in turn approach Australian government lawyers, who would prepare and lodge an extradition request with the U.S. government. If that process goes ahead without problems, Watson may still be able to fight any extradition order in U.S. courts.
"There are lengthy legal procedures that are involved, but obviously we are keen they will be done as quickly as possible," Webber told reporters in Townsville.