OCEAN CITY – One year after an Elkton high school graduate in Ocean City for Senior Week was first reported missing and later found floating in the Cape May, N.J. harbor, and one week after what would have been his 19th birthday, the memories of the tragedy still linger in the resort and his family and friends are still grieving.
One year ago last week, Nicholas Raymond Gochnour, 18, was first reported missing by friends he was staying with in Ocean City for Senior Week after they had not seen or heard from him for several days. The incident touched off a broad investigation as Ocean City Police retraced where he had last been seen and interviewed dozens of people he had most recently been in contact with. Speculation at the time ran the gamut from foul play to accidental drowning and there is still no definitive answer about his last days, but there was some measure of closure when Gochnour’s body was found floating in the water near the Cape May harbor two weeks after his disappearance.
One year later, the pain of the tragedy still lingers for Gochnour’s family and friends. Just last week, a year after his disappearance and ultimate demise, his friends from Elkton were back in Ocean City to hold a candlelight vigil on the beach not far from where he was last seen, but the ceremony was canceled because of windy, stormy conditions. Instead, family and friends will have a balloon release at his mother’s home next week on June 27.
Nicholas’ mother Tami Gochnour praised this week the good intentions of his friends to remember him with a vigil on the beach and was sorry to hear the weather did not cooperate last week.
“Yes, the kids that went to Ocean City last week were planning a vigil for Nick, but the weather wasn’t the best for what they were planning on the beach,” she said.
Sandwiched between the canceled vigil on the beach in Ocean City and the planned balloon release at the family home next week was another occasion that brought the tragic events from a year ago back into focus, according to Tami Gochnour.
“We just celebrated Nick’s 19th birthday last Saturday, June 16, with a lot of family and friends at our house,” she said. “It was very hard. We have had a very hard year without Nick. I miss Nick more and more every day.”
Like thousands of others, Nicholas Gochnour came to Ocean City last June with a group of friends from Elkton High School to celebrate their recent graduation. The group did the normal things high school graduates away from home for the first time do. It’s not unusual for a young person in Ocean City for Senior Week to stray from his or her group, but when Gochnour’s friends had not seen him for several days, they called police to report him missing.
From the beginning, certain aspects of his disappearance alarmed investigators. For example, his clothes, cell phone and other belongings were still in his hotel room and the phone had not been used for several days despite the fact his birthday had fallen within the time frame of his disappearance and he would have almost certainly called home, according to friends and family.
Other evidence discovered led police to at least consider Gochnour had been the victim of foul play. He was last seen on June 14 near Anthony’s Restaurant near 17th Street. The night before, video surveillance cameras at the nearby Party Block showed Gochnour in some type of physical or verbal altercation with a group of people outside the nightclub including a man with a pit bull.
Over the next few days, OCPD detectives tracked several leads and tips and interviewed dozens of people both in Ocean City and in Gochnour’s home town of Elkton to no avail. As the days and then weeks rolled by with no new information, the case grew steadily colder. Finally, two weeks later, fishermen aboard a recreational boat near the harbor in Cape May, N.J. discovered the body of a young man floating in the water.
New Jersey State Police alerted the OCPD and detectives drove to New Jersey that morning. Through fingerprints, investigators were able to determine the body was Gochnour. There were still no signs of foul play and no signs of obvious physical trauma on the body and the investigation continued.
The body was transported to the New Jersey State Medical Examiner’s Office for a full autopsy, but for months no definitive information was released and the investigation into Gochnour’s demise continued as detectives were still not sure if they were dealing with an accidental drowning or a criminal event. The Coast Guard conducted drift tests to determine if the body could have drifted from Ocean City to where it was found nearly 60 miles away and the tests confirmed Gochnour could have perished in Ocean City and drifted to Cape May.
Finally, four months after the case began, the toxicology report prepared by the New Jersey medical examiner was released and determined the official cause of death was drowning with a contributing cause attributed to morphine toxicity. The medical examiner’s report did bring some measure of closure to the case, although, one year later, there are still no firm answers about the circumstances of Gochnour’s final days.
Did he go swimming while intoxicated and under the influence of drugs? Did he fall in the water? Was somebody else responsible for him ending up in the water? They are all questions that will likely never be answered as the investigation has been all but closed.
Tami Gochnour said the message in the case should be the dangers of young people on their own for the first time with access to drugs and alcohol. She said she is still following what is going on in Ocean City during Senior Week this year, particularly the story from last week about a 17-year-old that drank 20 shots of whiskey and passed out before his friends took him to the emergency room with alcohol poisoning.
“You know when I read that, I thought thank God his friends didn’t think of themselves and got that boy help,” she said. “His parents should be thankful, not angry, because they saved his life.”
Gochnour regretted the same help from friends did not come in time to save her son. While she stopped short of blaming her son’s friends for his death, Gochnour said the story might have had a different outcome if they had acted in the same way as the aforementioned case from last week.
“I believe if someone would have helped Nick, he would be here today, instead of being cowards and worrying about themselves getting into trouble,” she said. “I believe with all my heart that this is what happened to my son. People know what happened to him and they could have prevented this from happening and they will have to live with that for the rest of their lives.”
In the meantime, family and friends are still trying to put the pieces back together and his mother will live with his memory for the rest of her life.
“Nicholas is our angel and he will never be forgotten,” she said.