A dozen FBI agents donning 7mm wetsuits and armed with metal detectors waded into the ocean below the Shoreline Park cliffs this Wednesday to search for clues in the suspicious death of Christopher Marks. Another 8-10 agents in rock-climbing gear investigated the bluffs and sifted through grass and ice plants on the Mesa above.
The body of the 60-year-old Santa Ynez Valley winemaker and attorney was discovered in the middle of the beach at around 6:30 a.m. on September 20. Though Santa Barbara authorities initially stated his injuries appeared consistent with a fall from the cliffs — and little else was publicly said about the incident for the next week — SBPD detectives kicked their investigation into high gear last Wednesday after receiving the autopsy results.
Authorities have so far declined to say what in the results raised alarm, but Marks’s death is now considered suspicious, the result of a suicide, accident, or foul play. Local and federal officials have also refused to say what specifically they’ve been looking for in the search efforts, saying only they’re on the hunt for items of evidentiary value.
While the FBI was called the day before the SBPD conducted its own search of the stretch of sand on September 27 — using shovels, rakes, a metal detector, and a skip loader — the bureau’s only West Coast dive team was tied up on other cases until this week. Special Agent Bobby Chacon said his unit started searching at around 6 a.m. and would continue until nightfall. The divers covered a 300-by-75-foot rectangle right offshore, following four movable lines attached to cinder blocks and buoys.
Working in shifts, the divers were accompanied by a spotter who’d radio if a big wave was on the way, Chacon said, explaining that working in the middle of the surf is a serious challenge. By noon, they hadn’t found anything save for a few rusty nails. Chacon said his team, based in Los Angeles with a field office in Ventura, acts as a support unit for local jurisdictions. It’s one of only four FBI dive groups in the country and has worked on missions throughout the Pacific Rim.
Wednesday’s efforts marked the first time Chacon and his team had been back in town since they assisted the SBPD in the 2009 Cory Lyons double murder case. “That was the last homicide case we worked in Santa Barbara,” he said, noting his divers searched a pond near the scene for evidence. In most missions, Chacon went on, the agents are looking for bodies.
The father of five children, Marks was an attorney in Buellton and, along with his wife, Kristi Marks, operated the highly respected the Sweeney Canyon Winery in the Sta. Rita Hills. A July 2011 interview with Kristi Marks about the couple’s vineyard and work can be read here. A private memorial service was held September 29 at Holy Cross Church on Cliff Drive.