SYDNEY, Australia – Eleven days after getting married in 2003, an Alabama woman put on diving gear and slipped into the water off Australia's coast for what was supposed to be a romantic exploration of a shipwreck with her new husband.
But the dive ended with her drowning and on Friday, almost five years later, her husband, David Gabriel Watson of Birmingham, Ala., was charged with murder in the honeymoon death.
The Queensland state coroner found there was sufficient evidence to charge Watson in the death of his 26-year-old wife, although circumstances of the drowning remain unclear.
Christina Mae Watson, known as Tina, drowned Oct. 22, 2003, while diving at the wreck of the SS Yongala, a passenger and steam freighter that sank during a cyclone in 1911 on the Great Barrier Reef near the northeastern city of Townsville.
Coroner David Glasgow issued the indictment after a monthslong investigation. The move triggered extradition proceedings to return Watson to Australia.
Watson faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of murder. His Australian lawyer did not immediately enter a plea, but he has argued the evidence does not support any criminal charge.
Watson was not present in court and his whereabouts were unclear. He did not testify at the coroner's inquest, claiming privilege against possible self-incrimination.
But in videotaped police interviews, Watson, who uses the first name Gabe, said his wife began having trouble a few minutes into the dive. He said she panicked and clutched at his mask, pulling it off his face. By the time he restored it, she was sinking away from him, her eyes wide and arms outstretched toward him, he said.
Watson, 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.
During the coroner's inquest, police testified that they initially thought the death was an accident. However, they became suspicious when Watson changed details of his account.
An autopsy found no pre-existing medical condition that could have explained the young woman's death. Tests showed there was nothing wrong with her diving gear.
In his findings Friday, Glasgow said the exact circumstances of Tina Watson's fate may never be known.
"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."
Watson's lawyer, Steve Zillman, argued during the inquest that his client had no motive to kill his wife and that the evidence did not support a criminal charge. He accused police of being intent on blaming Watson for the death, no matter what the evidence showed.
But Glasgow said Tina Watson's father, Tommy Thomas, had provided a possible motive, telling authorities 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.
Thomas, Tina Watson's mother Cindy Thomas and other family members watched the proceedings on a live video link between the courtroom and Alabama, where they live.
Tommy Thomas was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying the family welcomed Friday's indictment.
"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."
National news agency Australian Associated Press quoted Watson's U.S. attorney Bob Austin as saying that Watson had not yet decided whether he would fight Australia's extradition request.
"He's very disappointed, very distraught and displeased," Austin was quoted as saying of Watson's reaction to the coroner's findings.
Australia and the United States have an extradition treaty, though the process can take months and Watson will be able to challenge any extradition request in U.S. courts.