About that gator story: Report reveals inconsistencies

Eric Merda doesn’t want to talk about how he lost his right arm. I tried to be friendly when I asked him if it was true that an alligator got it.

  • “Naw, I chewed it off myself, man,” he said. And then he hung up on me.

What’s happening: Merda, 43, who owns a small irrigation ditch-digging company, has been in the national news the past few weeks after the Sarasota man’s harrowing story of surviving a gator-choked Manatee County swamp for three nights in July went viral.

  • The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post and dozens of radio and television stations have recounted Merda’s epic tale.
  • “As survival stories go, Eric Merda’s three-day odyssey spent fighting to stay alive in a Florida swamp after an alligator tore his arm off sets a new standard for human toughness,” reported People Magazine.

Yes, but: An incident report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, filed less than a week after Merda was found by a good Samaritan, reveals inconsistencies in his survival story.

His account: Merda told reporters that during a break from work the afternoon of July 17, he got lost while hiking near Lake Manatee. After some time, he decided to swim across the lake to find his van.

  • After 15 minutes of swimming, he has said, he stripped off his long-sleeved shirt, pants and work boots.
  • He said he then noticed a nearly 7-foot-long alligator, which bit him, pulled him under three times, then swam away with his right arm.
  • Merda said he swam back to shore and survived on lake water for three days. “With a bone poking out, a lot of pain, the whole three days I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” he told WFLA.
  • He was discovered July 20 near the Lake Manatee Fish Camp boat ramp, and flown to Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Merda was found in this patch of woods, just beyond the fence, which paramedics cut. Photo courtesy of FWC

The report: When an FWC officer, Eric Sierra, interviewed Merda in the hospital that same day, he told a different story.

  • Merda said the gator that bit him was three or four feet long, and that he’d gone into the water well after dark, around 11pm, per the report.
  • An FWC officer found a Walmart receipt inside Merda’s van from the afternoon of July 18, a day after he said he entered the swamp. The officer also documented a bottle of whiskey, drug paraphernalia and marijuana in the vehicle.

On July 25, FWC officer Jason Cooke went to the hospital to speak with Merda, but Merda wouldn’t let the agent record the interview.

  • “I am not sure who I am going to sell my story to yet and I don’t want it being recorded,” Merda told the officer, per his report.
  • He then stated he took all his clothes off before getting into the water, but changed his story again, saying he took them off while swimming.

  • “As clarification, I asked at what point his clothes were removed,” the agent reports. “Merda advised that he did not want to continue the statement anymore,” and ended the interview.

Cooke tried to contact Merda several more times but “with no luck,” he wrote in the July 25 report.

  • “To this date, I have not been able to speak with Merda about the incident.”

The latest: Merda answered the first time I called on Tuesday. He told a more robust story than he had previously disclosed.

  • Merda said he left home two weeks before the alligator incident and described becoming a “nomad” in search of adventure. That included swimming for two hours off Siesta Key and driving as far down a Wimauma dirt road as his van would go, then setting off on foot until he ran out of energy. These preceded him getting lost just 3,000 feet from a housing development near Lake Manatee.
  • “Fighting two weeks with God cost me my arm, man,” Merda said.

He also said he didn’t know about the marijuana and drug paraphernalia documented in the report and denied the presence of alcohol in the van’s passenger seat.

Merda said he hoped to use the incident to launch a career as a motivational speaker since digging ditches was nearly impossible with only one arm. He said he had not yet sold his story, but hoped to.

After the incident, per policy, trappers gutted two healthy, mature American alligators — one 6 feet long, the other 9 feet 9 inches long — at the lake. They found no human parts inside.

  • The FWC closed its investigation in July.

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