Cadaver dogs continue to help the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, along with friends of 71-year-old Timothy Stephen Satterlee, this week as they search the swamp around Avery Estates subdivision for the missing Slidell man.
On Aug. 30, the Monday morning following the overnight landfall of Hurricane Ida, the missing man’s second wife, Sandra Jean Erwin Satterlee told police she heard splashing below their raised home on Avery Drive and stepped outside to investigate. According to Captain Lance Vitter, commander of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office Public Affairs Division, “Sandy” Satterlee told investigators, she had looked at the floodwaters from nearby Lake Pontchartrain and saw her husband “in a death roll” with a 7-foot alligator.
Earlier, Sandy said, “Tim” descended the stairs to secure items in a shed below the house and filled with several feet of water. Hearing splashes, Sandy thought he had fallen into the water and came down the steps to help him.
As Sandy approached Tim and his attacker, the reptile abandoned its prey, allowing the 63-year-old woman to drag her bleeding husband onto the steps. She went inside for her first aid kit and returned before realizing one of his arms was missing.
With her electricity and cell phone service interrupted by the hurricane, Sandy boarded a pirogue, paddled to a neighbor’s house, and called 9-1-1. She returned to the house ahead of emergency responders, but Tim had disappeared, leaving only a spatter of blood on the steps. Soon after, law enforcement launched airboats and helicopters, searching for the missing one-armed man.
Before any of this made the news, I knew the name, Tim Satterlee.
In Hurricane Ida social media groups, I saw friends searching for him in a different way. Tim, recently retired from Textron Marine and Land Systems in Slidell, had a reputation as a community leader in times of storms and floods. When Tim did not arrive to help others in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, his fellow volunteers in the St. Margaret Mary disaster response team knew something was awry.
“[His disappearance] is such a devastating loss for our community,” Robert Bywater told reporters.
Bywater, another member of the St. Margaret Mary Men’s Club, said their group left Slidell for Luling on Thursday, Sept. 2, in motor homes carrying food and equipment to cook Chicken Pastalaya for victims of the storm.
The group, he said, periodically travels to cook for disaster victims. In Denham Springs, Sulphur, and Cutoff in Louisiana, Panama City Beach and Pensacola in Florida, and Orange Beach in Alabama, they have cooked barbecued chicken, chicken and sausage, and vegetables.
Although police had not released Tim’s name to the media, the alligator attack had made the news. Bywater said his crew suspected something was wrong when their friend did not show.
“You either knew him by name or by face, but you knew him. He was always there,” Bywater said. “This is a devastating loss for our community.”
Another volunteer, David Huff, said he met Tim volunteering at Pope John Paul II, a Roman Catholic high school where Tim’s grandchildren attended class. There, Huff said, Tim and his son painted the lines on the football field before home games. “He was just one of those guys who just gave and gave.”
Deborah Erwin, a relative of Sandy, promoted a social media fundraiser collecting money for her. The funding page reads: “She is so nice and so loving, but receiving ugly comments of what she should have done. She was fearing for her husband’s life as well as her own. The alligator could have grabbed her while she was trying to get to her boat. So much was running through her head in her panic to save her husband.”
The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office also posted on social media, quoting Sheriff Randy Smith as saying, “We have not stopped our search. We will use all the resources available to locate Tim Satterlee Sr.”
The Satterlee home is near the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, 18,000 acres of swamp habitat along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain between Slidell and Mandeville. The forests, marshes, and wetlands of the refuge buffer the community from storm surge while creating habitat for many of the fish and wildlife species that enrich the Louisiana ecosystem, including the American Alligators.
These beasts hunt predominantly at night, but people are not the shy alligator’s prey of choice. They typically eat birds, fish, reptiles, and small mammals. Experts say their brains are the size of an almond. They wait in the dark, listening for water movement, biting first and asking questions later.
When these reptiles capture large mammals, they typically drag their catch underwater to drown them before consumption. Their stomachs are large enough to consume 20 percent of their body weight in one meal, therefore a 7-foot alligator could eat a 200-pound man. However, it could not swallow the man whole.
Likewise, alligators seldom swallow human clothing and footwear.
Captain Lance Vitter said the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office does not yet suspect criminal activity, but explained their investigation is ongoing.
“Not having a body is hampering this investigation,” he said. “The body is the most important part in any investigation of this sort. We don’t have a body, so we can’t officially declare the gentleman deceased. We can’t make that call until we recover a body.”
Regarding Sandy Satterlee, he said, “She is distraught, as you would expect. There was nothing in the initial interview with the spouse to make investigators suspect foul play. At this point in time, we have found nothing to indicate foul play, but we are still looking into it. We will do everything necessary to determine exactly what happened to Mr. Satterlee.”