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The Disappearance of Scuba Diver Ben McDaniel, Part 4B --The Suspicious Stage Tanks--
If you haven't read the previous parts yet, you can find them here:
Part 1 -- Intro into the Case, Diving Info, and Background.
Part 2 Timeline of Ben's Last Known Dive, and an In-depth Look Inside the Cave.
Part 3 The Above Ground Search, Diver Responsibility and Safety, and Ben's Troubling Training.
Part 4A An in-depth look at Ben's gear.
Most PopulaPlausible Theories on what Happened to Ben:
A. Ben accidentally drowned while exploring the furthest reaches of the cave, and his body is wedged in some crevice or buried in sand, where it remains hidden.
B. Ben committed suicide by purposefully squeezing into a tight space that search divers cannot go, knowing he would not be able to get back out.
C. Ben faked his own death by making it appear like he drown in the cave, but had actually exited the water safely, leaving his old life behind.
D. Ben fell victim to some sort of foul play either during or after his dive, and his body was hidden, either in or out of the cave.
Note: the quotes in this part are either from Recovery divers and/or members of scubaboard.com, credited either by username, or real name if known. Any clarification/additions/grammar corrections will be in italics. Also, as we get more into this series, there will be a bit more of speculation as we try to make sense of the evidence found.
Also, I want to thank you guys for your patience. It's been an insane couple of weeks. Even if I can post, I'm using whatever time I have to improve the series and make it better. Even if it takes a little longer, we will definitely be finishing this series- I'm having too much of a blast not too see it through to the end. I'll leave a comment below with more info for those who've been asking or wondering about the gaps in my postings.
-----Suspicious Stage Tanks-----
The only physical evidence found that seemed to indicate that Ben had been in the underwater cave at VS were 3 mismatched scuba tanks with Ben's name written on them. Two of the tanks were found together in shallow water, while the other was found a bit deeper in the cave.
Here's the map of the VS cave for reference.
In the late morning of Friday, August 20th, 2010, as Law Enforcement (LE) gathered experienced Recovery divers to search for the overdue diver, both Eduardo and Nik Vatin, the diver who took that video of Ben in the Piano Room, had a chance to do a quick sweep around the cave to look for Ben. Nik filmed his search, and noted a tank lying on the cave floor (round the 0:40 second mark). At first Nik thought this might be a Recovery diver’s tank, but it proved to be evidence in Ben's disappearance when Ben's name was discovered on its side. Later that day, while the 1st and 2nd Recovery teams searched the cave, a 3rd team set up Stage tanks for the others and looked around the basin. Two more Stage tanks were discovered in the basin.
Note: In the world of scuba diving, the word ‘stage’ is term used to describe a tank’s specific purpose, as well as a verb to describe the process of setting them up. For true-crime hobbyists like us, the word “stage” tends to conjure up ideas of a sneaky suspect altering, posing, covering up, or creating false crime scenes in an effort to mislead LE. In Ben's case, ‘stage’ can mean both- as the term divers use and the idea of some other person, or even Ben himself, messing with the scene to mislead those looking for Ben. For the sake of clarity, I'll use stage/staging as the diving verb, I’ll capitalize the “S” in Stage for the name of the tanks, and I'll put quotes around “stage" and “stager” when referring to some unknown person potentially planting false evidence.
---What are Stage Tanks and Their Purpose?---
When divers get into more advanced/technical diving, their dives can get longer and more complex as they learn how use multiple tanks on a single dive. Stage tanks are extra scuba tanks a diver uses to supplement a dive, in addition to the ones mounted on their sides or back. Divers carry the extra tanks and deposit them along their underwater route, kinda like leaving a trail of life-sustaining breadcrumbs. Here's a couple photos of world-renowned diver Jill Heinerth setting up tanks as she makes her way into the VS cave, and carrying them back out.
Divers use the extra tanks for several reasons: to make sure they have plenty of air, to have backups within close reach in event of emergency or malfunction, to give the diver more “bottom time” to explore, for decompressing during ascent, to have enough of different gas mixes for different depths, and to reduce the risk of nitrogen narcosis or oxygen toxicity while on deeper dives. Stage tanks can be set up ahead of time, on a dive earlier in the day, or sometimes the day before. Sometimes divers carry their Stage tanks right along with them, dropping them off as they swim through their planned route. Stage tanks are usually retrieved on the diver's way out.
Divers sometimes call their extra tanks by different names, based on the specific purpose they're being used for, like “deco tanks” (decompression) or “bottom tanks,” but to keep things easier to follow, let's call them all “Stage tanks.”
-----Oddities with the Stage Tanks-----
There is a lot to unpack and take in when it comes to these tanks. In an effort to keep things organized through the chaos, let's break down each aspect of the tanks: their appearance, the locations where they were found, what the tanks contained, and condition they were found in. Following each aspect are the questionable inconsistencies and suspicious contradictions that arise when trying to make any sense of these tanks.
--Appearance of the Stage Tanks--
The three Stage tanks were all different in appearance.
Tank #1 is green with a Nitrox sticker, a “diver down” sticker, a black tank boot, a full black regulator set with yellow hoses, a yoke valve, and has Ben's name and contact info written on the side, near the bottom. Tank #1 is fairly new looking, has no writing on top, and the stickers show only mild signs of aging/peeling.
Tank #2 is red with a Nitrox sticker, a black tank boot, black strapping, a semi functioning yoke valve, with Ben's name written in big block lettering around the top, and a piece of white tape that appears to read `Yoke 40%’. Tank #2 has scuffs, dings, and peeling stickers.
Tank #3 is a dulled silver color with a Nitrox sticker, a yellow tank boot, a single hook tied to a green string, no strapping, a broken yoke valve, also has Ben's name written in big block lettering around the top, and a white sticke tape with “diver down” flags (not sure what it says.) Not pictured is a pair of pliers that were bungeed to the tank.
--Inconsistencies with Tank Appearance--
Beside all three being mismatched, there seems to be a divide between tank #1 versus #2 & #3. Tank #1 appears fairly new, with only some minor wear, while the other two look older and beat up. I also noticed something potentially important- Where and how Ben's name is written on the tanks. On #1, Ben's name and contact info written in small print, on the lower side. On #2 & #3, Ben's name, is written in big block letters around the valves on top. #2 & #3s found laying on the bottom left side of the tunnel leading to the Piano Room, about 80ft deep. #2 & #3 were both found locked by chain to the talkbox, about 20ft below the surface. Here's a map with the approximate locations of the tanks marked in red.
--Locations of the Stage Tanks--
Stage Tank #1 was found laying on the bottom left hand side of the entrance tunnel to the Piano Room, about 80ft deep.
Problems with the Locations
Tank #1 was barely inside the actual cave entrance and a considerable distance from the gate. #1 was the deepest of the three tanks, but it was outside of the gate- not far enough in to actually be useful if an emergency happened in the more dangerous parts of the cave. If Ben experienced any trouble beyond the gate, that life-saving tank would have been a long swim away. I haven't been able to confirm, but my best educated guess is 40-50ft of horizontal travel and 35ft to ascend from the gate to tank #1. If he desperately needed tank #1, a struggling/panicking Ben would have to exert more energy, using more gas, to weasel his way potentially through dangerous restrictions, then wriggle through the small opening of the gate, through the Piano Room, to find his way back into the tunnel to reach it. The 2.5ft×2.5ft opening of the gate is big enough for a diver to swim through, but it can be deadly obstacle if a rushing diver got snagged/stuck in the gate.Even if tank #1 was placed inside the gate, there still is a glaring issue. Due to the horizontal length of the cave, there should have been several more tanks placed along the route.
The location of Stage Tanks #2 & #3 is even more bizarre. They were found chained to the talkbox in the basin, only about 20ft from the surface. They were way too shallow to have done Ben any good on his deep dive. The tanks should've been placed deeper into the cave whether Ben planned to use them for staging, decompressing, more bottom time, or as backups. Divers must take rest stops at various depths for various lengths of time in order to “off gas” the nitrogen build up in the body while at depth. If tank #1 was intended to help with decompression on the way out, it still doesn't explain why there'd be two more tanks in the basin. It's wise for any diver to do one last stop for 3-5 minutes at 5m(15ft) to decompress a little more before surfacing, but Ben certainly wouldn't need two 80L tanks for such a short rest. If #2 & #3 had been placed deeper, they still wouldn't have been any use because of their contents.
--Contents of the Stage Tanks--
When the three tanks were found, they were analyzed to see how full they were and what gases they contained. Tank #1 was filled all the way, #2 was barely ½ full, and #3 had so little gas, divers described as “almost empty. #1 was filled with Nitrox (I'm almost positive it was 36% O2), perfect for Ben's slightly deeper dives, but both #2 & #3 only contained regular air.
The Problems with the Contents
The fact that #2 & #3 were not full is very bizarre. No diver would use a tank that wasn't full, nor would a diver fail to completely fill their tanks before getting into the water, even for short dives. It would be akin to visiting Death Valley, but only filling your bottles halfway because you're only planning to do a short hike. (Interesting side note: desert hikers will make short prep hikes to bury water bottles prior to a big hike, much like how divers might do short prep dives to stage tanks for a big dive.) You can live 3 days without water, but you won't make it much past 3 minutes without air, so it would be senseless to not take as much as you can, especially if it doesn't really effect the weight you have to carry. Overhead environments are especially dangerous, so it's just reckless to not fill your tanks all the way.
As for the gas contents of the tanks, #1 contained Nitrox, which makes sense for Ben's deeper dives, especially since it was found at a depth where Nitrox would be useful. However, #2 & #3 only contain contained regular compressed air, inadequate for decompressing in Ben's case. This just adds to the confusion because Ben used Nitrox- he just wouldn't need regular air to decompress in only 20ft of water.
So, to play a little devil's advocate, let's try to figure out why #2 & #3 weren't full and only contained regular air. Ben could have decided on a shorter, less deep dive than he originally implied in his dive log, deviating from his dive plan either before or during his dive. It's possible he was embellishing heavily (something he seemed prone to do) in his dive log, but in reality he was actually doing less complex/dangerous dives. Or, he might have decided to abort the dive early, either due to something going wrong, or maybe because he got caught tampering with the gate by Eduardo and Chuck. If Ben didn't go as deep, and wasn't down for long, perhaps he used some of the air in tanks #2 & #3 while decompressing a little during ascent. The partially empty tanks would seem to indicate he left the cave and exited the water, but that still leaves holes in the theory. Why would Ben breathe from two different tanks, without depleting one before switching to another? Scuba tanks hold a lot of air, so why would Ben sit in 20ft of water, long enough to use ½ of tank #2 and ⅔ of tank #3? At that depth, a typical scuba tank can last around an hour. That would add 50 unnecessary minutes to the length of his dive. The idea of Ben using those two tanks becomes even more unlikely and bizarre when you consider what kind of condition #2 and #3 were in.
--The Condition of the Stage Tanks--
Not all three Stage tanks were found in good working condition. Tank #1 was newer, had a full regulator set, and was perfectly functional. Tanks #2 and #3, however, were almost completely unusable.
The Problematic Condition of the Tanks
This is where things get really bizarre. Stage tank #1 was the only one of the three tanks that had a regulator (mouthpiece), gauges, and working valves. It's strange that the only working tank would be left full, unused, and abandoned to sit freely on the cave floor.
Both Stage tanks #2 and #3 did not have regulators. While it’s possible to swap a regulator from one tank onto another while underwater, divers have explained that doing so could be dangerous and can it ruin the expensive regulator. Even if the regulator didn't need to be completely replaced, it would need to be repaired/overhauled asap. That kind of swap should only ever be attempted if a diver is in a dire emergency and absolutely has to. If I understand the process of swapping a regulator correctly, (and divers, feel free to correct me), swapping it more than once might not work and could render it unusable. Regulator sets easily cost over $1000, and the repairs+parts could go into 3 digits. Stage tank #2 had the potential of being functional, if only it had a regulator, new valve, and was properly filled all the way with adequate deco gases.
Stage tank #3 was in even worse shape. It had a pair of pliers strapped to the tank with a bungee cord, which were required to even attempt to open the broken valve to access the less than a ⅓ of regular air it contained. #3 was in such disrepair, that it wouldn't have any purpose other than as a “Hail Mary” in a life-or-death emergency situation. If that tank was the only one a diver could attempt to use during an emergency, they would try, and maybe they might be able to get it to work... but no diver in their right mind would knowingly make their dive more dangerous by bringing a hunk of junk like #3 as a Stage tank.
Let's remember that Stage #2 & #3 were found only 20ft from the surface. It would be more dangerous, needlessly expensive, and take more time to transfer a regulator from tank #1 (or one of the sidemount tanks) onto #2, than it would to just swim to the surface, especially if a diver was having an emergency. #3 would require all that, plus a pair of pliers and some MacGyver-level skills to even attempt getting the piddly ⅓ of air inside, all while the surface of the water is right there. The potential health concerns from getting a mild case of the bends is there, but obviously much more preferable than drowning, and you can bet-your-butt a panicked diver isn't thinking about getting the bends when they are out of air. Diver panic is a scary thing, causing divers to shoot to the surface without even thinking about it. If you're in a position that you need a “Hail Mary” pass in the form of transferring your expensive regulator onto an old busted, unusable, almost empty tank that you purposely brought along, knowing it was busted and not full, all while the surface being just 20ft away, you probably have no business scuba diving.
Even if Ben could make #2 or #3 work, why would he risk damaging an expensive working piece of gear, just to be able to use another busted piece of gear? Ben had the ability/means to either purchase new parts, or at least get the broken ones repaired, thanks to his parents. Even if Ben was trying to be as conservative as possible with his parents money, his parents would never put money before their son’s safety… and Ben knew that.
Ask any scuba diver, and they would tell you that no diver worth their salt would knowingly endanger themselves by hauling a junk tank that doesn't work, isn't even full, and doesn't have adequate gas, on a dangerous cave dive. There is no purpose in risking your life with damaged and unusable gear in normal recreational diving. In fact, it's downright stupid. No diver in their right mind would risk their life just to use broken Stage tanks, put in senseless locations, that aren't even full, without the most beneficial gases, with broken valves that require pliers to open, that don't have regulators to easily breathe from, that risk ruining an expensive working regulator, all on a strictly fun recreational dive.
A quote from a diver on Scubaboard about the contradictory insanity of Ben potentially swapping regulators:
”If he planned to swap regs to save money, then that's even more faulty thinking. If that was common practice on earlier dives, how much money was he spending on overhauls? and how much downtime did he have on regs being overhauled? There are so many strange inconsistencies.” - a user named Divedoggie_
-----Back to Ben's Facebook Post-----
Let also touch back on that Facebook post Ben made on August 3rd, 2010, on just 15 days before he went missing:
”I think I had interrupted a video shoot in the Piano Room @ Vortex Springs, Saturday night :/ July 31st, 2010. It had been a fun cave dive, solo n side mount of course, ;) so a good ending getting caught on tape was a plus. Nik from the Dive Locker was filming while the other diver walked on the ceiling and blew air rings. During the dive, I had been plotting for this upcoming Monday’s 8 tank, deep penetration solo dive. I will post something on it later. To sum it up... 4 stage, 2 bottom, and 2 decompression bottles for a 232 minute, 148 ft deep cave dive with a total penetration to the end of system at approx. 810 ft!!!!" -Ben McDaniel, via FacebookThere's a lot of interesting tidbits in this comment. Let's pick out the potentially important/questionable stuff. The video Ben’s referring to is accidentally interrupting Nik Vatin, aka “deepswim” on youtube, filming his dive buddy in the Piano Room. Ben recognized Nik, and upon seeing the diving buddy blowing air rings and taking his fins off to “walk” on the ceiling (which is a no-no in the diving world, as it can damage the cave), he joined the fun. Ben sounds proud of getting captured on film.
Ben then indicates that on July 31st he was making a prep dive, plotting out where to place his Stage tanks for a big upcoming dive. This makes sense, as he's not carrying any extra tanks with him in that video. It's unclear if Ben had actually made that big dive on the following Monday. Ben said he'd post an update after the dive, but no follow-up ever came. Seems odd considering how epic of a dive Ben was planning. Divers speculated that Ben didn't do the big dive that Monday, but delayed it until he returned from a long visit with family back in Tennessee. He returned to Florida a few days before he went missing. Ben's family have said that he was looking very forward to getting back in the water.
”From everything we have heard so far, his FaceBook posting is not at all surprising. He appears to have been really proud of what he was doing, and his descriptions of his exploits probably resulted in tons of admiration from his friends, who didn't know any better. I am sure he was expecting further admiration from those posts.” - a user named boulderjohnThe lack of a follow up seems to show that Ben didn't have a chance to do his big epic dive before he went to TN, likely postponing it until after he returned.
The status also indicates that Ben had a total of 8 tanks: 2 side-mounted tanks, 4 tanks to Stage throughout the cave, and 2 tanks for decompressing on his way back out. He said he was planning on a 232 minute dives, which is pretty long considering the cold water and relatively simple layout of the cave.
”...his supposed 232 minute dive is interesting. A dive to 140 ft there at VS is only about an hour dive, maybe an hour and half if you play around some. Not enough to poke in (explore) at that depth to justify that kind of run time. I kinda think that dive log entry is highly padded or bogus.” -Kevin Carlisle, Recovery diverThe depth and length of the cave Ben specifies, 148ft deep and 810ft to the “end of the line” are strange. Diving to 148ft deep is possible if you go beyond the gate, but it's not a depth you'd want to dive to using only Nitrox. The official depth one could go to on 36% (what Ben likely used) is 100ft. It's possible to dive deeper than the official suggested depths, but going 148ft deep on Nitrox will cause narcosis, and would require a gas blend, like Trimix, to replace some of the nitrogen. Ben wasn't certified to use Trimix, and as far as I can tell, VS did not have the set up to offer it. Some divers have speculated that Ben may have got the Trimix somewhere else. The alternative is that Ben really wasn't going that deep, but was just embellishing.
There are contradictions with the horizontal travel of 810ft to “the end of the line” Ben mentions as well. The cave is much, much longer than 810ft- it's about double that length. The end of the line is definitely not located only 810ft back, but the length to the end of the 2nd Restriction, into the Max Headroom, is about the right length Ben mentions. It's possible that Ben either thought that was the end of the line, didn't or couldn't push into the 3rd restriction due to his size/ability, or he was just fibbing about his accomplishments.
If Ben did postpone that big Monday dive, and was planning to attempt it when he returned to VS, why wouldn't he use all 8 tanks? Only 3 Stage tanks were found, and of those, only one was in good working order. We can probably safely assume he had his 2 side-mounted tanks on his person… but where are the 3 other tanks? Are there 3 other tanks, or are they just more embellishment?
Perhaps Ben wasn't planning a big dive for the 18th, so he only took 5 tanks on his dive. It's difficult to determine exactly how long and complex of a dive he was planning due to not having the information, and that our source for info is an unreliable narrator. With Ben being last seen at the gate, along with his facebook status, we can probably guess that the dive was a bigger than the one in Nik Vatin's video. Ben being caught trying to get past the gate, plus his intentions described in his facebook status, are both possible indicators he was planning a fairly complex dive, but how far into the cave is unknown.
His status could imply that he wanted to use all of his tanks to push through the 2nd Restriction to the Max Headroom, but then where are the missing 3 tanks? Diving through the 2nd Restriction using all 8 tanks could imply that Ben wasn't yet comfortable diving to the dangerous 3rd and 4th Restrictions... which could explain why his body was not found in the furthest reaches of the well-searched cave. The lack of any evidence that any diver had recently been in the 4th Restriction seems to bolster the theory that Ben only made it through the 2nd.
If Ben wasn't planning on using all 8 tanks, why would he pick two in such disrepair? Did he pick the best 3 tanks out of the bunch to use for his dive? Well, that would mean that Ben's other 3 missing tanks were in an even worse condition than tank #3. Why would a diver tote around 4 or 5 busted, unusable tanks? If the 3 missing tanks were in poorer condition than Stage tanks #2 & #3, Ben would not have been able to use all 8 of his tanks for that epic Monday dive plan.
Ok, so maybe Ben had his tanks repaired in preparation of the big dive... but then why didn't they find more tanks in the water? If Ben voluntarily left the cave, he would have picked up his tanks on the way out. If he decided to leave behind the junk tanks as some sort of ruse, why would he leave behind tank #1, which was newer and in good working order? Even if he couldn't carry all of the tanks out at once, he'd still have 5 tanks to drag along in some getaway on foot, without his truck. It's possible Ben didn't own as many tanks as he claimed. Most sources say that Ben owned all of his equipment, but he could have rented extras for complex dives. However, no tanks were reported as missing from the dive shop.
There's also still the question of how much of Ben's FB status can we take as the truth. Ben was known for his pride and being overconfident so it's possible that Ben was exaggerating to show off on Facebook and gain affirmation & admiration from his friends and family.
This commenter from Scubaboard sums it up well:
”Whether or not Ben made this dive, he has a demonstrated history of making bad decisions with respect to diving in overhead environments. If by some chance he did not make the dive on Wednesday, or if he survived that dive, and some other event intervened to create his absence, the fact of the matter is that the cavalier attitude that he demonstrated has caused a tremendous amount of time, effort, expertise, worry and anger to be spent. If he did not die on this dive, and if he were to continue diving by the same internally generated rules, it would only be a matter of time before this episode replayed. If he survived, that fact would in no way mitigate the foolishness he had previously demonstrated. It was for people like him that the reaper signs were installed. It was for people like him that the gate was installed at Vortex. It is for people like him that many caves located on private property are not accessible even to certified, experienced cave divers. Is he the only one who as ever broken the rules? Certainly not. Is he the only one who has caused recovery teams to search for a body. Not even close. But being like others does not make one less responsible for their own actions.” - a user named god1head-----Were The Stage Tanks “Staged”?-----
With all of the glaring issues surrounding the Stage tanks, divers, police, and even Ben's family began to wonder if the tanks were indeed “staged” to mislead anyone looking for Ben. There's so many utterly asinine problems with #2 & #3, that can feel beyond reasonable to think that Ben was that incompetent with his equipment, and his life. Ben was pressing his luck with his recklessness, but he had been diving since the age of 14. He was trained to dive to 100ft deep, and understood the decompressing required to ascend from that depth. Gaining the attention and respect of others seemed to be important to him, so how could he make such embarrassingly grievous mistakes, especially when he was knowledgeable about the subject matter?
If the tanks were not some incredibly stupid decision of an experienced diver, then what are the alternatives? Someone had to have staged/”staged” those tanks. Who did the stage/“staging,” and for what purpose? The contradictory aspects of Tank #1 being fairly typical of someone diving in the cave of VS, versus the list of problems with other two, seems to point to tanks #2 & #3 more likely to have been “staged” for nefarious purposes over tank #1. While all three could have been “staged,” it seems much more likely that the two grouped and “staged” together. If we assume #2 & #3 were “staged”, there are two possibilities: an unknown person or Ben himself.
If they were “staged” by another person, say because something bad happened to Ben that needed covering up, it's possible that #2 & #3 were junkers set up by someone else. If Ben wasn't planning on a long complex dive that night, and only planned to use tank #1 as a backup or decompressing, someone else (who maybe wasn't much of a diver, and lacked knowledge about Stage tanks) wrote Ben's name on two old busted tanks, and “staged” them by chaining them to the talkbox, perhaps unaware of tank #1 deeper in the cave.
If all three of the tanks are indeed Ben's, it seems more likely that Ben purposely “staged” his tanks in a confusing matter. Maybe he purposefully left his crappy equipment behind, possibly throwing in the working tank in for good measure, to mislead anyone looking for him.
Either way, there are holes in any of the narratives. There are so many pitfalls, contradictions, and gaps in logic whether the Stage tanks were Ben's, or if someone else “staged" them, but let's try to make sense of them:
--The presence of the Stage Tanks, particularly #2 & #3, is so baffling, it feels like whoever placed them was grossly incompetent and seriously under-educated in scuba diving. Perhaps whoever placed them simply didn't care to, didn't want to, or didn't need to get it right- they just needed a distraction to send searchers in the wrong direction. Let's call this person “stager”.
--The locations of the tanks seem to indicate that whoever placed them in the cave did not go past the gate. Either Ben did not go as deep in the cave as he claimed, or they were placed by a “stager” with limited knowledge about where and how to place Stage tanks... or maybe an extremely clever Ben purposefully “staged” the tanks to be as confusing as possible.
-- If someone with limited diving experience “staged" the tanks, they might've not felt comfortable diving beyond the basin. The “stager" might've had only enough knowledge to dive to the talkbox 20ft down to set up #2 & #3. The “stager” could’ve dropped #1 as far into the tunnel as they dared to risk, or tank #1 was Ben's and the “stager” was unaware of its placement. This possibility could also explain why the gate was left wide open- diving into an overhead environment without training is risky and scary. Even the basin would've been difficult to navigate at night.
--Our alleged “stager” could've placed #2 & #3 at the talkbox without realizing that the location didn't make sense. Many divers, including Kevin Carlisle, have said the placement of the tanks in the basin looked like someone without cave diving training tried to make it look like a cave diver staged the tanks. Could the reason why tanks #2 & #3 are so baffling is because some untrained “scuba stager” thought they were clever enough to fool actual divers and LE? If there is any truth to this idea, it reeks of the confidence a narcissist would have.
-- The way #2 & #3 were filled also seems to point to a “stager” with little diving knowledge. According to the divers who saw them analyzed, the regular air in the tanks was inadequate for decompressing at that depth (feel free to chime in if you're a diver who has more insight). It makes sense that an inexperienced “stager" wouldn't know what gas mixes Ben would have needed.
-- If there was a “stager," that person didn't notice or didn't care about the appearance or condition of the tanks. It'd be easy to scribble Ben's name around the tops of a couple of old tanks pulled from some shed or garage. #2 & #3 had Ben's name written around the top in big print, while the green one had his name/contact info on the side, towards the bottom in small print. If the “stager” couldn't dive deep enough to look for Ben's Stage tanks, they wouldn't know exactly how Ben wrote his name on his tanks, and picked a location that seemed most likely.
--An inexperienced “stager" also might have improperly filled or couldn't properly fill #2 & #3 because the valves were busted. The “stager” might’ve purposely grabbed old junker tanks, not putting regulators on #2 & #3 because regs are expensive pieces of equipment.
--Tanks #2 & #3 were chained and locked to the talkbox, but working #1 does not appear to be secured as well as the other two. It might be tied or clipped to the cable that runs along the cave floor, but there's no visible chains or locks like #2 & #3. If Ben left his tanks in the water, why would he leave the best one secured only with a clipped to a cable, but then lock up the other two broken ones with chains to the talkbox? This goes with the theory that tank #1 might've actually been Ben's, but the “stager” did not know of its existence.
But wait...trying to think through the purpose of the “staging” the tanks breaks down:
If someone “staged” #2 & #3, how was the “stager” trying to mislead authorities? Did they want it to appear that Ben was in cave, or that he left the water? If the “stager’s” intention was to make it look like Ben completed his dive, scribbling Ben's name on a couple of old busted tanks and not filing them all the way might make it appear like Ben used the air in the two junk tanks, completed his dive, then exited the water of his own free will. If so, the “stager’s” logic epically failed to get the location, contents, and condition of the tanks make any actual sense. It would imply that Ben left or forgot his only properly-functioning Stage tank poorly secured in the cave, danced with decompression sickness, risked swapping out his expensive regulators underwater, not once, but twice, onto two separate busted-up junk tanks, that weren't full, one even requiring him to use pliers to open, all to decompress with the wrong gas, for 50 or so minutes worth of missing air, only 20ft from the surface. It seems this potential “stager” also neglected to think it all the way through- if Ben did exit the water, he would've retrieved his tanks and taken them with him on his way out. And, if he did “exit the water”, it would imply that Ben managed to haul away all of his of heavy gear, including up to 5 scuba tanks, on foot, without his truck, keys, wallet, phone, or street clothes, to wander off into the wilderness while magically leaving behind no footprints or scent trails.
If a “stager” wanted to make it look like Ben never left the cave, #2 & #3 should've been full with the right gases, in working condition and regulators, in a deeper location if they wanted to imply he ever decompressed. It doesn't make sense for Ben to bother locking up two busted tanks close to the surface, but leave the working tank clipped to a cable on the cave floor. If a “stager” didn't know/couldn't check if there was another tank in the cave, they wouldn't know that a lock and chains were inconsistent with tank #1. Why would a “stager” bother to chain the tanks down in the first place? Did they worry someone would steal them, or did they just do what was natural to them?
...Well I have a theory, but I want to keep making an effort to keep as much of my opinion out of the main post as possible. There's tons of interesting thoughts so far, and I don't want to pollute that before there's a chance to interact in the comments. I think the best solution is to make a bonus post a few days after this Part. That way you can question and discuss Part 4B first, then you can join me in a bonus post about my theories, or skip it/save it for later. Thoughts?