By Ron Hayes
Time may never bring true closure to parents who have lost a child, but sometimes it can bring confirmation.
For the Boynton Beach family of Rodelson Normil, confirmation came on July 23, more than six years after their son disappeared beneath the waves a half-mile south of Gulfstream Park, and it came through the help of a 6-year-old boy and a hurricane.
“We have some news on your son,” Sgt. John Passeggiata of the Gulf Stream Police Department told the teenager’s father that morning. “It’s not the news we would like, but I hope it will give you some closure.”
For Passeggiata and his colleagues, that phone call was both confirmation and closure to a case that began at 2:47 p.m. on a cloudy Friday, May 31, 2013.
A teenager wearing a black bathing suit over green and white boxer shorts had been caught in a riptide.
Red warning flags had been flying all week, and Rodelson Normil, 17, a junior at Boynton Beach Community High School, was not a good swimmer. He’d promised his father he’d stay on the sand. But when his friends Zachary Wano, Senovain Stephens and Isaac Cruz hit the waves, he went in too.
Wano told Passeggiata he’d seen Rodelson struggling and tried to help, but the current had dragged them both farther out, until finally he had to let go and return to the beach alone.
Rodelson was last seen about 250 feet offshore.
A command post was set up behind the 4001 North Ocean condo, and for the next three hours Passeggiata and three colleagues tried to find the teenager.
Fire-rescue units from Boynton Beach and Delray Beach joined the search, along with the sheriff’s marine unit and lifeguards from Boynton Inlet and Gulfstream Park. Delray Beach Ocean Rescue led the water search as a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter searched from above. At 4:30 p.m., the search and rescue mission became a recovery operation.
Soon after, a body was spotted in the water, but the 6-foot waves kept searchers away.
TOP: On the day of Rodelson Normil’s drowning, more than a dozen Delray Beach Ocean Rescue and Palm Beach County lifeguards were involved in the rescue attempt near Gulfstream Park.
ABOVE: Gulf Stream police and fire-rescue teams from Boynton Beach and Delray Beach took part in the search.
RIGHT: The Coast Guard provided helicopter support. Rough seas complicated the rescue and recovery efforts.
2013 file photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Rodelson Normil, son and brother, high school student and poor swimmer, was now officially a “missing person”— Case No. 13-0965 in the Police Department’s files.
But Passeggiata’s job was not done.
A month later, on Monday, July 8, he called the boy’s father to have his son’s dental records filed with the county Medical Examiner’s Office.
“My son has never been to a dentist, partly because I do not have coverage and because he has been healthy and never needed to see a dentist,” Roger Normil told him.
On Thursday, July 11, both Roger and Marie Normil came to the police station bearing their son’s toothbrush. Saliva swabs were taken from both parents’ cheeks, and the DNA information was mailed to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where it would be kept on file in case it was ever needed.
On Friday, Aug. 2, Passeggiata checked with the medical examiner’s office in both Martin and Volusia counties. Neither had any unidentified bodies matching Rodelson Normil’s description.
And so four years came and went.
And then Hurricane Irma came and went.
At 3:35 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, Irma made landfall at Marco Island as a Category 3 storm with 115-mph winds, traveling up the center of the state overnight and into northern Florida on Monday.
Palm Beach County had been spared a direct hit, but the beach off Gulf Stream was rattled.
Early that Tuesday morning, Sept. 12, Robert Julien and his three young sons went for a walk on the beach near their home to survey the storm damage.
Along the way, Charlie Julien, who was 6, spotted what he thought was a big dog bone on a spit of displaced dune stretching toward the water behind 1919 N. Ocean Blvd., just south of the Gulf Stream Golf Club.
He brought it home to their mother.
Charlie’s mother is Dr. Joanne Julien, a pulmonologist at JFK Medical Center.
“Oh, my God,” Dr. Julien exclaimed. “That’s a human femur.”
Lt. John Haseley at the Gulf Stream Police Department was equally surprised when the father and his three boys showed up at 8 o’clock that morning.
“Mr. Julien placed a large ‘bone’ that appeared to be human remains, a femur leg bone, on the police lobby desk,” Haseley wrote in his report. “The bone appears to have been in the water for some time.”
Sgt. Bernard O’Donnell jumped on the department’s ATV and searched the beach where the bone was found but discovered nothing more.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 13, Ralph Saccone, a forensic investigator with the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office, came to the Police Department and took the femur bone.
The next day, Saccone called Passeggiata to say his department had confirmed the remains were human.
Two hours later, Passeggiata met with Dr. Julien and her children, who showed him just where the bone had been found. He and another officer searched the spot more closely but again found nothing.
Nearly two more years came and went while the Center for Human Identification, which performs 70 to 80 percent of the DNA testing of human remains in the national data bank, struggled with its backlog.
And then, on July 18, Passeggiata received a letter.
“These genetic data are approximately 131.4 million times more likely that the unidentified human remains originated from a biological child of Roger and Marie Normil,” the center had found.
On July 23, after the county Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that it had also received the letter from Texas, Passeggiata called Roger Normil with the news.
“He was a little confused at first,” Passeggiata recalled, “but then he said, ‘Yes, I remember you.’ He was a little in shock, I think, but he did seem excited, to a degree.”
After a death certificate is issued by the medical examiner, the remains will be returned to the family.
Roger Normil and his daughter, Nancy, have declined to comment on the findings.
Robert Julien said young Charlie, who’s now 8, was really surprised when Passeggiata called to say the bone he’d found two years ago had been identified.
“It had been so long, we didn’t think they were able to put the DNA together,” his father said, “so he was super surprised. It’s extremely sad to see a young boy lose his life like that, but it’s also nice to think the family will get some closure.”
And if not closure, perhaps the final confirmation has brought some comfort.
At 10:30 a.m. on July 23, after speaking with Roger Normil, Passeggiata sat down to update his report.
“This missing person case 13-0965,” he wrote, “is closed.”
Rodelson Normil’s femur was found 1.3 miles south of the spot where he drowned.