On July 20 of 2014, the Great Egg Coast Guard station in Longport, New Jersey, received a distress call after a boat struck an offshore buoy, knocking the two men on board into the sea. The call was received just before midnight, and soon emergency responders began canvassing a 60-square-mile patch of ocean just off Longport, which is near Atlantic City.
It was a bad place for an accident, an area where the sheltered waters of Egg Harbor meet the open Atlantic, producing unpredictable currents, even on a calm night.
Still, one of the men on board, 23-year-old Justin Belz, had managed to swim to shore, where he was spotted by Tom Murphy, a nearby resident. Belz told Murphy that he’d lost track of his friend, Andrew Biddle, after the collision. Belz was frantic, convinced Biddle was still drifting somewhere out in the darkness.
Rescuers started near the shore and expanded farther out into the ocean, a desperate race against the elements. A professional powerboat racer and the owner of a marina business in town, Biddle, 47, was a man who was comfortable on the water. He knew the bay and its warren of islands like only an avid boater could. If anyone could survive in the open sea, it was Biddle. But as the night dragged on, it appeared increasingly unlikely that he’d be found alive. Longport mayor Nick Russo, greeting rescue workers, reflected on the dangers that exist, even in modern times, when people take to the water. “The dangers of the water command respect,” Russo told Philly.com.
The search lasted nearly a day before the Coast Guard called its ships in, believing Biddle was dead.
“We conducted a nearly twenty-hour search,” a Coast Guard official told Shore News Today on July 21, “but after exhausting all resources, the chances for survival based on water temperature and time in the water is slim.”
On OffshoreOnly.com, a website forum where powerboat enthusiasts gather to trade stories and tips, the news was greeted with disbelief. “I just read the report,” one commenter wrote on July 22, two days after the collision. “I am floored.” “He was a class act,” another said, on July 25. “R.I.P. Andy.”
But less than two weeks after the search was ended, as family and friends mourned, a jarring article appeared on Philly.com. The Egg Harbor Township Police Department, the paper reported, had developed a theory straight out of a mystery novel.
Biddle, the championship boater, the man as at home on the water as on the land, wasn’t actually dead, the department believed. The whole incident was a hoax; he had never fallen overboard and never drowned. Biddle was on the run.
For months, Biddle had been facing fraud and theft charges related to his business. He had been accused of selling boats for clients and never delivering the proceeds. He had developed a reputation as a con artist. Authorities believed the accident in June was a ruse, and Biddle had escaped. A detective in the department told the paper that officials were “proceeding with the investigation as we would if he hadn’t been reported missing.” He was officially listed as a fugitive by early August.
On February 12, more than seven months after he went missing, Biddle was standing before a judge in Atlantic County Superior Court. And he was very much alive.
“He recently called me and said he wanted to step up to the plate and take responsibility,” Biddle’s attorney, Mark Roddy, told the Press of Atlantic City on Thursday. “I told him, if he was serious, to call me when he was back in the area, and I would set something up.”
That call came in a few days ago, Roddy told the paper, and Biddle surrendered. He is free on a $50,000 bond, and faces seven charges related to his alleged crimes. It’s unclear, the paper said, whether he will face charges related to his escape as well.
Here’s the local CBS news report about Biddle just after the search was called off.