Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

Fighting the Tide

Rene Wassink believes Michael did not survive the difficult swim.

"I don't know what happened to him, but I am almost certain that he didn't get to shore," Wassink told the Dutch press. The timing of his departure, at 7 a.m., meant he would have been fighting the outgoing tide even if he managed to get near shore.

"He really didn't have much time to get solid ground under his feet before the outgoing tide would be on him again," said Wassink. "Even if you are only 30 feet from shore, you don't stand a chance against that abnormally heavy tide."

No one blamed Wassink for Rockefeller's disappearance, but some blamed the Dutch colonial authorities for poor judgment in assigning a novice bushman — and a virtual non-swimmer, to boot — to travel with the headstrong Rockefeller. An experienced guide surely could have been more persuasive in cautioning against the swim for shore.

Michael Rockefeller with a young tribesman in New Guinea
Michael Rockefeller with a young
tribesman in New Guinea

The world press sensationalized the case with wild accounts of the various ways in which Rockefeller might have met his demise — including speculation that he fell victim to a shark or a crocodile.

From time to time, questionable self-proclaimed eyewitnesses have stepped forward to claim that Rockefeller had either "gone native" or was being held by tribesmen in remote corners of New Guinea.

Perhaps most sensational are the claims that the young man was killed and devoured, recounted in several books. Some of these stories originated with an unlikely source: the Rev. Gerald Zegwaard, a Dutch priest who was regarded as the first Catholic missionary to work with the Asmat.

Zegwaard maintained that Rockefeller may have been killed in revenge by an aggrieved band of Asmat tribesmen. In 1958, Dutch police killed five members of the Asmat village of Otsjanep, located not far from where Rockefeller disappeared. Had Michael stumbled into Otsjanep, he likely would have been the victim of a retaliatory murder as a member of the white tribe, the priest said.

Conspiracists whispered that the Dutch government covered up the murder because headhunting, cannibalism and murder of white trekkers meant bad public relations.

However, there is not a shred of evidence that Rockefeller was murdered, and it seems unlikely that a "secret" murder could have been concealed from American authorities.

The best evidence that Rockefeller was lost at sea is the fact that no reliable physical evidence has ever turned up to prove that he made it back to land.

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