Fatal Gators

updated 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Annmarie Campbell was snorkeling with friend Jackie Barrett May 14 in a secluded spring in Florida's Ocala National Forest, not far from where she'd grown up. The two women set off in opposite directions; a few minutes later, Barrett couldn't find her pal. She raced back to their cabin to get her husband, Mark, and two friends. When they returned 35 minutes later, Mark spotted Annmarie, 23, in the water—in the jaws of an alligator. He jumped in and started pounding on the animal's snout, gouging its eyes, finally getting it to release her. "Mark said he carried her out of the water like a rag doll. But it was too late," says Campbell's mother, Dawn Marie Yankeelov. "I'm sure she didn't see this gator, or she would have taken precautions. She had a healthy respect for alligators."

In the past 58 years, alligators in Florida have killed 17 people. Then earlier this month, they killed three women in six days. On May 10 construction workers found the body of Florida Atlantic University student Yovy Suarez Jimenez, 28, in a canal near Fort Lauderdale, next to a bike path popular with joggers. The medical examiner ruled she had been attacked on land and dragged into the water. On May 13 a trapper and officials captured a 9′6″, 400-lb. gator in the canal and killed it; Jimenez's arms were found in its stomach.

The following day teenagers in the Tampa Bay area discovered the body of Judy W. Cooper, 43, floating in the canal behind their home. The M.E. says that alligator bites "did play a role" in the death of Cooper, a homeless mother of two who had been battling a crack addiction.

Why the rash of attacks? Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Willie Puz cites warmer weather, which makes alligators more active and brings more people to their watery habitats. But he admits that doesn't completely explain it. "These are unfortunate and unrelated coincidences. We're dealing with three different places, three different bodies of water, three different alligators."

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