On August 11, 2015, 28 year old Crystal Pifer's 42-year-old boyfriend Thomas Prins took her out on his boat on the Halifax River in Volusia County, Florida.
After some mechanical failures, an argument between the couple, another boat's interference and a first 911 call, a second 911 call was placed by Thomas, claiming Crystal had jumped in the water, but he didn't see her come back up.
The next morning, Crystal was found floating face down in the river, naked from the waist up. She had been beaten and strangled to death. Thomas' trial lasted only 3 days before he was sentenced to life without parole.
CRYSTAL AND THOMAS'S RELATIONSHIP
Crystal grew up near Daytona beach and absolutely loved the water. She was a beautiful blonde with a big smile, and "could have been the Sunshine State's poster girl". Her father remembers how she always wanted to be in the water.
Crystal, 28, had a son and spent her time with him, and working for her family's towing business. She had recently met a new man, Thomas Prins, who owned a tree-trimming service. Crystal's brother, Freddy, described him as "not the most appealing looking guy" (hold for a quick giggle) but believed he was a good guy. After all, he had his own business, a home, and seemed like an okay guy for his sister.
Eventually, Crystal moved in with Thomas, and her son would stay over sometimes. It seemed like she was happy.
Until she wasn't.
One night, Crystal called her mom, frantically, saying that her boyfriend was beating her up. Crystal's mom, dad, and brother all rushed to the house to her aid. Freddy remembered seeing blood dripping down her face, and he blacked out, tackling Thomas to the ground, punching him, warning him that if he ever laid his hands on Crystal again, it would be much worse.
Though everyone believed that would be the end of the abuse, it wasn't. 8 months later, it would only get worse.
On August 11, 2015, Crystal and Thomas planned to go out on the Halifax River on his boat, which he had bought from Crystal's ex-husband. He knew the boat had mechanical issues, but they chose to go out anyway at around 7 PM. They had both been drinking.
When the engine shut down early into their ride, they began arguing. However, Thomas got the boat to start again and they started to sail over to a nearby restaurant to grab dinner. However, their argument continued, as restaurant patrons recall a heated conversation between the couple on the boat. Though they couldn't hear what was being said, "body language could tell things were going badly for this young woman."
But once they got inside the restaurant, they cooled off a bit and became more friendly. Too friendly, in fact. At one point, Thomas was asking the wait staff to touch and kiss Crystal, prompting management to ask them to leave. Once they arrived back on the boat, some of the restaurant guests took photos of them, sensing that things just weren't right.
These are the last images of Crystal Pifer alive.
If you weren't convinced that things were getting weird when Thomas started asking the waiters to kiss his girlfriend, maybe you'll agree things start getting weird now.
Okay, so. It is dark now. The boat pulls away, but 10 minutes later, the engine shuts down again. They start yelling and fighting once again. Only this time, Crystal jumps off of the boat. Joseph Ryan Will, former assistant Florida state attorney, says, "she's distraught, she's upset, he's aggressive, he's yelling at her."
At this time, a coincidental fisherman passes by and offers Crystal a ride to shore, but she says no. However, he tells Thomas he is only going to allow her to get back on the boat if he stops screaming at her. He agrees, and Crystal gets back onboard. They take off again.
But, you guessed it, the engine overheats and gives out again. This time, tempers get more heated than ever before. She jumped off of the boat again.
This time, she swims over to a boat with one James Wagner on it and tells him that she's being beaten up on her boat. He offered to row her to shore in a dingy, but he would have to leave his daughter behind on the boat. Crystal changed her mind with that information, saying that Thomas would come hurt his daughter if she was left alone. So, she dove overboard and swam back to Thomas' boat as he continued yelling at her. Wagner called 911 to report the incident.
And so, Crystal and Thomas drifted back off. But 45 minutes later, another 911 call comes through... This time, it was Thomas.
"Me and my fiancee got into a little argument and she took the keys to my boat and jumped off the boat, and I just want to make sure she's OK. I don't see her in the water, I think she swam to shore. She is not that good of a swimmer and I keep on jumping in the water to see if I can find her and I can't find her anywhere. She jumped off the boat, she said, 'I hate you' and she jumped in the water and swam off, and I am just praying that she is OK."
Police arrived and towed Thomas and his terrible boat in, and he went home.
But the next morning, local fisherman found the body of Crystal Pifer, naked from the waist up, floating in the river. She had been beaten and strangled to death.
ARREST AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
When the police arrived on the scene, they began to hear all sorts of accounts of the arguments between the couple the night before, and the 911 calls. Port Orange Police Detective Mike Wallace knew foul play was involved right away. (What a keen eye you have, Mike.) Thomas Prins was their only suspect.
During the interrogation, Thomas reiterated the same story over and over: The boat repeatedly breaking down lead to fights on and off, and eventually, Crystal just jumped overboard. Though police believed that he had strangled her with her bathing suit top, they didn't have enough evidence to hold him, and he walked out of the station.
But 2 months later, he was officially arrested and charged with first-degree murder. 8 months later, the case went to trial. Though Thomas' defense was that Crystal drowned, the medical examiner said that there was no water in her lungs, and thus she couldn't have drowned.
The prosecution presented images of their injuries and blood on clothes and towels. They had Crystal's ex-husband, the original owner of the boat, testify. They believed his knowledge of the boat would help prove Thomas' story wrong. He testified that in the 911 call, you can hear Thomas trying to start the boat, despite the fact that he claimed Crystal jumped overboard with the keys. (This seems like something a detective should have caught. You don't really need to be a boat expert to know it can't start without keys.)
After a 3 day trial, Thomas Prins was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He collapsed in the courtroom when the verdict was read. Nobody felt bad, I assume.
Many believe Crystal was a hero, as she protected James Wagner's daughter by choosing to go back to the boat. "She went back to her abuser in order to protect someone who was more vulnerable. Crystal saved that girl at her own peril," Will said.
It hurts my heart how many people knew what was going on in their relationship, but didn't do anything or weren't able to do anything about it. 8 months before her boyfriend would murder her, both of her parents and her brother ran to her aid when he beat her bloody. But, like many victims of abuse believe, she believed it was a one time thing. Her family believed the beating would suffice as a warning. What could they do? She was an adult woman.
That night, restaurant patrons knew something was up. They took photos and stared as they watched the couple argue, knowing she was in a bad way. But what can you do? 2 different boats came by while she was in the water, having dove off of a boat into the dark to escape her abuser, but both times, she went back. Once because perhaps she believed he would truly calm down, and once to protect another person.
I have to wonder, did she know she was going to die? When she swam back to her abuser instead of take the ride to shore with the nice man, did she know she was swimming to her death? Her life for a stranger's? I have to assume she did... you don't jump off of a boat twice in the dark water below if you don't feel like you're in fatal danger.
Abusive relationship are terrible. Because there is often not anything you can do as a bystander. I'm sure now her family and the boaters and the restaurant patrons wish they had done something else... but you don't assume a couple fighting will turn into a murder. You may not even assume an abusive partner will turn into a murderer.
I am relieved to hear Thomas Prins will spend the rest of his life behind bars, but Crystal still had so much life ahead of her that was cut short because of him. As I end many of these stories, rot in prison, Thomas. Rest in peace, Crystal.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and need help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE.