LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. » A sheriff said charges are unlikely against a Nebraska couple after an alligator killed their 2-year-old son by snatching him out of shallow water at a Walt Disney World beach, but the entertainment giant is reviewing whether to add gator warning signs.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told The Associated Press after a news conference Wednesday there was no indication Matt and Melissa Graves of suburban Omaha, Nebraska, committed any crime that contributed to the reptile grabbing their son, Lane Graves.
“There’s nothing in this case to indicate that there was anything extraordinary” in terms of neglect by the parents, Demings said.
Demings said his department and the state wildlife agency would look into the issue of signs around Seven Seas Lagoon, where Disney had posted “no swimming” signs but no warnings about the presence of alligators. Searchers removed five of the reptiles from the water while looking for the child, who was attacked at a small beach area near nightfall Tuesday.
A Disney representative, speaking on condition of anonymity because the company had yet to prepare a formal statement, said Disney would “thoroughly review” the sign issue in the future. Beaches that were closed during the search remained off limits to visitors, the company said.
Divers found the child’s body about 16 hours after authorities first got the call that a reptile had taken the boy at Seven Seas Lagoon, which borders the Magic Kingdom theme park. The park is one of the world’s most popular tourist spots, drawing millions of visitors annually.
Demings said it appeared the gator drowned the child and left the body near the spot where he was last seen. An autopsy was planned.
“Of course the family was distraught, but also I believe somewhat relieved that his body was found intact,” Demings told a news conference.
A family friend released a statement on behalf of the Graves thanking well-wishers for their “thoughts and hope-filled prayers.” CEO Michael Iaccarino of Infogroup, a marketing company where Matt Graves is chief data officer, said Graves’ family “is the light of his life.”
In the family’s Omaha neighborhood of Elkhorn, friends and neighbors reacted with disbelief and shock.
The principal of their church parish described the Graves parents as caring and attentive parents.
“The St. Patrick’s Parish and school community is just flat out devastated,” Norman Hale, principal of St. Patrick’s Parish Catholic School, told Omaha station KMTV.
Wildlife officials said the attack was a rarity in a state with a gator population estimated at 1 million. But it still shocked visitors in a city built on tourism.
“It’s the most magical place on Earth, supposedly,” said Michelle Stone, a Detroit-area resident visiting Disney for 10 days with her two children. “To come here with your family and (be) having this great time … There are no words.”
In a statement from Disney World Resort President George A. Kalogridis, the company said it was “doing what we can” to help the family.
Authorities said the boy waded into no more than 1 or 2 feet of water in the lagoon around nightfall Tuesday when he was taken from a small beach. The boy’s father desperately tried to fight off the gator, suffering cuts on a hand, but he could not save his son. Neither could a nearby lifeguard, officials said.
Nick Wiley with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said witnesses estimated that the alligator was 4 feet to 7 feet long. One of the five gators that searchers removed from the water may have been responsible for the attack, he said.
The beach where the reptile grabbed the child is part of the luxury Grand Floridian resort, across the lake from Magic Kingdom. The lake, which stretches over about 200 acres and reaches a depth of 14 feet, feeds into a series of canals that wind through the entire Disney property.
More than 50 law enforcement personnel searched the well-tended lagoon along with an alligator tracker and marine units equipped with sonar to search the lake’s sandy, mostly flat bottom. The sheriff said a dive team found the child’s remains.
Though Florida has grown to the nation’s third-most populous state, fatal alligator attacks remain rare. Before the child’s death, 23 people had been killed by wild alligators in Florida since 1973, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statistics.
The grim news was only the latest for Orlando, a city struck by tragedy in the past few days.
On Sunday, a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, leaving 49 people dead in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. On Friday night, Christina Grimmie, 22, a contestant on season six of “The Voice,” was fatally shot as she signed autographs after a show in Orlando.
Associated Press writers Joshua Replogle in Lake Buena Vista, Florida; Freida Frisaro and Jennifer Kay in Miami; and Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the child’s father is named Matt Graves, not Will Graves.