If only clouds and rain had hung over the beach on Dec. 11 in Costa Rica, like the forecast had predicted, none of this would have happened.
Sure, Doug Cotty and his brand-new fiancée Michele Arias might still have decided to hang out on Playa Chamán, and might still have spotted the baby olive ridley sea turtles nesting in the sand.
But the Charlotte couple would never have needed to borrow a bottle of sunscreen from the staff at their hotel. She never would have needed to take off the engagement ring to apply that lotion and never would have tucked the ring into the front pocket on Cotty’s tank top for safe keeping.
“My ring is in your pocket,” Arias said, patting him on the chest, as if saying the words out loud would help them remember.
It didn’t help.
Within moments, as the couple hurried to join the growing group of tourists marveling at the turtles, Cotty did something he never would have done if it had been cloudy and rainy that day: He stripped off his tank top, hung it from a tree branch and slathered himself with sunscreen.
And suddenly, the ring he’d put on her finger just three days earlier — a custom-made piece built around a one-carat diamond that had been in his mother’s family for generations — was no longer in his pocket.
At least a half an hour passed before Arias’ stomach tied itself into a knot as she realized they’d lost track of the treasured token. Another hour passed before they gave up digging in the scorching-hot sand, Arias with blisters on her knees and feet. Another hour before both became resigned to the fact that someone had probably spotted it and snatched it. Another before Arias was able to stop crying.
The next day, they flew back to Charlotte in a daze.
They were happy to be engaged and trying to look on the bright side, but there’s no question the loss stung. So too did the fact that Cotty hadn’t had the ring appraised or insured. So too did forking over $4,400 for a new stone a few weeks later.
Then on Jan. 9 — nearly a month after it dropped onto the sand in a foreign country — Arias received a Facebook message from a man she’d never met before.
Five words and six exclamation points: “I just found your ring!!!!!!”
“You are KIDDING!!!! Omg seriously?!?!” she replied.
“It is in my hand,” he wrote.
‘He’s been known to recover things’
Two days after the ring disappeared, Arias posted a plea to a Facebook group for residents of Costa Ballena, the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica that includes Playa Chamán, explaining their misfortune and asking people to spread the word.
“We are hoping someone found it and is holding onto it so we can possibly get it back,” she wrote.
It was basically a Hail Mary, and it yielded a litany of predictable responses that congratulated them on their engagement, ooohed and ahhhed over the pretty ring, expressed sympathy for their loss and promised to keep an eye out.
But one comment popped up that hung cryptically to the thread.
“David Harris has been known to recover things.”
Arias had no idea what that meant, and though he was tagged in the post, he never joined in the discussion.
What she might have learned if she’d pressed the issue: Harris is a 67-year-old American expat who spent more than two decades as a firefighter in Atlanta — where, he says, one of his specialties was using underwater metal detectors as leader of a rescue diving team. In 2005, he sold everything and retired to Central America to live out his days surfing and photographing nature and wildlife; if prompted about being “known to recover things,” he’ll launch into a story about helping a distraught beach-goer find his keys by loaning him a metal detector.
There’s more: Back in the ‘70s, when he was living in Asheboro, Harris says he found a class ring in about a foot of water at low tide on Myrtle Beach and — with less effort than you’d think — was able to track down the owner via the manufacturer. It had been missing for 40 years.
So when Harris saw his name mentioned and read about Arias’s missing engagement ring, he shot her a private message on Facebook on Dec. 14, two days after the jewelry had spilled out of Cotty’s pocket.
“If you still have not found your ring message me.”
Arias did not respond.
The next afternoon, he tried again. “Did you see my previous message? I have a metal detector and have found rings lost 40 years before. I will search for your ring but I need more information to narrow down the search area. And I need the information before another storm beats up the beach.”
Harris eventually figured it must have been returned to her, and he went back to living his best life in the small Costa Rican village of Uvita — returning almost every day to catch a few waves off of the very beach where the ring went missing.
Over the next 16 days, the rainy season wound down with a couple of storms (which caused high tides to swell up over the sand where the ring had dropped) and the peak tourist season began (which caused families to start flocking to Playa Chamán in droves).
Harris had all but forgotten about the whole thing when, on New Year’s Eve, he finally got a reply from Arias. As it turned out, his messages had been diverted into the Facebook equivalent of a spam folder, and she just happened to take a peek in it that morning.
She told him she’d be grateful if he was willing to take a look, but frankly, not very optimistic.
“It was more like, Oh, I’ll let the old man try. If he wants to go out there with a metal detector, that’s cool,” Arias recalls thinking. “But the odds of him finding it when it’s been there for a month at this point, with that many visitors, too ... I mean, I just did not at all think it was actually gonna result in anything.”
He told her it might be a little while before he’d go look.
“There were people everywhere. Cars everywhere. Campers everywhere,” Harris says. “So I just told Michele, ‘The ring, if it’s still there, it’s not going anywhere but straight down. I’ll wait until after the holiday crowds leave.”
She and Cotty went ahead with their online purchase of a new diamond and told Custom in NoDa that they’d be bringing the stone in soon, so could they please be ready to remake the setting.
Ten days later, on Jan. 9, Harris says he woke up, put on a pot of coffee, and was struck by the sudden feeling that he should go take a look on the beach. So he dusted off his metal detector, headed to the store to buy new batteries, then went to the location she’d described to him.
“I probably had searched for 20 minutes, maximum,” he says. “I picked up several Costa Rican coins, and of course a lot of beer caps and nails and stuff — which, on a metal detector, is a really dull thud kind of a noise. Then I got this really high-pitched ping. And I thought, This might not be her ring, but this is damn sure somebody’s property. Something that’s valuable.”
So he started digging.
‘Like a beacon’
He had to dig a hole nearly a foot deep to get to it.
“When I looked down in there, the sun was up and was shining, and the ring was sitting still in some sand, but it was sitting straight up and down,” Harris says. “And that center stone was just like a beacon.”
He grabbed it and made a scene — hooting and hollering and jumping up and down as a group of small children nearby eyed him curiously. After he retreated to his car to send a Facebook message to Arias, he says, the children pounced on the area and could be seen furiously digging through the sand.
Upon reading his message, Arias burst into a smile about as big as the one she wore on her face a month earlier, when Cotty had dropped to his knee at a lookout point near the top of Irazú Volcano in Costa Rica.
“Complete and utter shock, and disbelief,” Arias says of the moment she saw Harris’s message.
“I was like, ‘Are you sure? Like, you really did? I cannot believe this.’ He said, ‘I’ll send you a picture. I’m not very good with the phone, so I’m gonna send a picture when I get back home.’ I waited maybe another 15 minutes or so and he sent me a picture, and I was like — I mean, honestly, I was like, Holy s---. He found it. Then I immediately texted Doug, and he said the same thing.”
Adds Cotty: “I thought it was a prank at first. I’m like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait! Who sent you this?? Who sent you this photo??’ Just thinking maybe someone Photoshopped it or something. Like, ‘Oooooo, I have it! Send me a reward!’ But no, this was real.”
A final challenge
Still, getting the ring safely back onto Arias’s finger presented new challenges.
Harris didn’t trust the country’s postal service. DHL services Costa Rica and the U.S., but won’t handle jewelry as expensive as her piece. She was seriously considering just flying back down to get it when — in another struck of luck — a close friend told Arias that her parents were vacationing in Costa Rica and would be happy to bring it home with them.
The only remaining hurdle: They were staying nearly 200 miles up the Pacific coast from where Harris lives and, well, driving nearly 200 miles in Costa Rica can be a little more nerve-racking and a lot slower an undertaking than it is in the U.S.
Ultimately, Arias and Cotty wound up paying a private courier $450 and crossing their fingers last Tuesday as they waited for word from Dennis and Shirley Pirkl that the ring had arrived safely in Guanacaste.
Arias breathed a small sigh of relief upon hearing they’d signed for it at their hotel. But she wasn’t able to fully exhale until this past Sunday afternoon — 40 days after losing it, and 11 days after Harris found it — when she arrived at the Pirkls’ residence in Denver, N.C., and slipped the ring back onto her finger.
“I thought I was gonna cry when I got it back, because when I think about it, I keep thinking about when we lost it, and so of course that brings up a lot of emotions. But I’m honestly just —”
She pauses to collect her thoughts.
“I’m just happy.”
“We approached it with some humor after we got over the initial hump of dealing with the loss, and it had become a funny story to tell about losing it. But now it’s an awesome story because of all the good stuff that’s happened, and all the luck that we have clearly fallen into.”
She tried to pay the Pirkls back for the tip they gave the courier; they said to consider it an engagement gift.
She tried to send Harris $500 for his trouble; he said the same thing he told the man whose class ring he found in Myrtle Beach back in the ’70s, when he tore up and returned a $200 check the guy had mailed him: “I appreciate that, but I don’t sell people’s own property to them.”
As for the new diamond they ordered as a replacement? It’s en route to Arias’s house in Fourth Ward.
“But thankfully, they have a 30-day return policy,” Arias says, laughing. “So yes, I will be returning it.”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes