Ozark Orgy

The naked truth about Missouri's backwater Sodom and Gomorrah

Warmed by sun, boat exhaust and vast amounts of human urine, the iridescent green water of Party Cove sloshes about at a tepid 85 degrees. Twenty feet below the surface a new biosphere unfolds. Here, the lake sits cool and undisturbed, with silt and sediment lending the water the look and feel of chocolate milk.

Swimming through these murky depths, diver Tim McNitt spreads his thick arms wide, allowing his hands to rake across the muddy lakebed. Like a foraging catfish, McNitt blindly feels his way through the muck, seeking sunken riches among the discarded beer bottles, plastic Mardi Gras beads and sundry crap blanketing the floor of the cove.

In this slow, deliberate fashion, McNitt estimates he's discovered $700,000 worth of jewelry and other valuables in the twenty years he's been plunging into the gloomy hollows of Lake of the Ozarks. Among the jackpots struck in Party Cove, McNitt's found Rolex watches, gold chains, diamond bracelets, rolls of cash and scores of designer sunglasses. Most of the loot he sells on eBay or hawks directly through his business, Atlantis Dive & Dock Salvage.

As for the less-marketable finds -- the one-hitters, the syringes, the pistols, the unopened liquor bottles -- McNitt discards all but the dildos.

"They're great for practical jokes," exclaims the 42-year-old McNitt, who says he sanitizes the sex toys in his home dishwasher. "I leave them on doorways or tie them to people's bumpers. It's a hoot."

Yet for all the untapped spoils lurking on the floor of Party Cove, located a mile south of the Grand Glaize Bridge, McNitt warns that his is not an occupation for the weak or timid. He routinely goes deeper than 100 feet in his treasure-hunting pursuits, and as he sees it, his barrel-chested physique is perfect for the job. At just five-foot-six, he's small enough to keep his limbs from getting tangled in dive cords, yet powerful enough (he claims to bench-press 315 pounds) to bring to the surface damn near anything he finds on the lake bottom.

Most important, McNitt has the proper disposition for the task.

"You have to be half-rat to do this," he cracks, preparing for a dive earlier this month.

Among his Party Cove war stories, McNitt tells of drunken hellions bombarding him with M-80 fireworks. He recalls run-ins with angry fish, water snakes and saber-toothed muskrats. He describes in detail how Vaseline protects the skin from corrosive solvents polluting the lake. He bemoans the ear and throat infections he invariably picks up during his frequent scavenger dips.

"I don't know how many times I've been down there and come across a used condom," McNitt says before disappearing into the water. "The things people do in this lake: It's disgusting."

Health hazards be damned, this Labor Day weekend tens of thousands of Midwesterners will descend upon the Lake of the Ozarks for one last salacious salute to summer. Of those vacationers, the Missouri Water Patrol anticipates between 8,000 and 10,000 will enter the lake's notorious Party Cove, an audacious free-for-all that's earned the reputation as a backwater Sodom and Gomorrah. There, under the late-summer sun, partygoers will burn their plump flesh the color of ballpark franks, expose themselves for cheap plastic beads and engage in provocative sex acts with perfect strangers.

To McNitt's good fortune, an untold number of thrill-seekers will drop valuables into the drink. At least two people, according to Missouri Water Patrol statistics, will be carted off to the hospital for excessive drinking. Dozens more will be arrested on charges of boating-while-intoxicated (BWI). Chances are better than average that someone will die, with a drug- or alcohol-related drowning occurring in the mile-long Party Cove roughly every three to four years.

All of this serves to fuel the inlet's notoriety, which after some twenty years in existence as a party spot may now be reaching its zenith. In May, Men's Fitness magazine named Party Cove the No. 1 summer party destination in North America -- ahead of Las Vegas, Cabo Wabo and South Beach -- describing it as a "Greek kegger meets a Roman orgy."

A simple Google search on the term "Party Cove" reveals several X-rated Web sites chock-full of photos and videos of bare-breasted women, sunburned genitalia and lots and lots of public sex. A half-dozen other sites carry discussion boards devoted to Party Cove's orgiastic escapades, and at least two competing firms now offer knockoff Girls Gone Wild videos filmed in the infamous inlet.

In recent months, the cove has been featured on the Playboy Channel and the television show A Current Affair. Just last month none other than the New York Times ran a front-page story in its July 22 travel section, dubbing the cove "the oldest established floating bacchanal in the country."

It's a reputation confirmed by the Reverend John Mark Hott. For several years the Lake of the Ozarks-based evangelical minister was a fixture in Party Cove, preaching fiery sermons from aboard his 78-foot-long houseboat.

"We had to learn to preach clothes back onto people," says a dead-serious Hott, whose off-shore ministry ended in 2003 when his insurer dropped coverage of his floating church. "Whenever someone exposed their genitalia to us, my response was always the same: 'God has seen everything you got. We don't need to see it, too!'"

"We've had families go in there, and they were just appalled," echoes Sergeant Ralph Bledsoe, information officer for the Missouri Water Patrol. "They call wanting us to do something about the drinking and the nudity, but there are no laws against getting drunk -- as long as you're not driving. As for the nudity, well, Missouri state law defines nudity as exposed genitalia. Our officers will arrest them if they're bottomless, but topless? We can't do a thing."

So widespread is the unruly behavior at the cove that Bledsoe says his agency lets the party go on unabated for the most part, responding only in cases of emergency.

"We've had officers go back in there, and people have thrown beer bottles at them!" says Bledsoe. "It's not safe."

It's not quite 1 p.m. on a recent Saturday, and already the bacchanal inside Party Cove is in full force. On the bow of a houseboat, a 250-pound woman shakes her tremendous derriere to the Boston classic "More Than a Feeling." Behind her a stick-figure of a man with the blackened smile of a meth addict thrusts his pelvis into her tremendous rolls of flesh.

Hundreds of boats -- from $1,500 pontoon junkers to million-dollar yachts -- float side-by-side, forming three zigzagging barges that stretch nearly the entire length of the cove. In total, some 800 boats and personal watercraft (JetSkis, WaveRunners and the like) will enter the cove this afternoon. On holiday weekends that number can more than double.

Navigating his way through the cove's notorious "gauntlet" -- a narrow stretch of water through which all passersby are subject to catcalls and water-gun spray -- a three-foot-tall midget on a WaveRunner proves an elusive target to the frat boys shooting water cannons at him. When the little person fails to give into women's screams that he show his penis, the crowd switches its attention to the next vessel floating through the gauntlet: a pontoon boat full of Hell's Angels.

Two of the gang members -- a character resembling Telly Savalas and his burly friend -- take objection to the squirt-gun assault and stand up to shout obscenities at their attackers.

"Do that again, you little fucker!" the Kojak look-alike yells to one of the frat boys. "You're fucking dead!"

Soon another stream of water -- this one coming from behind -- pelts the biker, leaving a wet ribbon running down the back of his leather vest and onto his jeans. When he turns to confront this new gunman, more drunks open fire, shooting him now from all sides. As he disappears out into the cove, all the soggy biker can do is crack a smile and address his attackers with a one-finger salute.

Off to the side, a foursome of women in their 30s are reliving their halcyon high school days, shaking their mom-hips and pumping their fists to the sound of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf."

Songs in Party Cove never grow old. Quiet Riot fades into C&C Music Factory. Def Leppard melds into Garth Brooks. The B-52's give way to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then, rising above the din, there's the ever-present sound of Jimmy Buffet, whose "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw" may as well serve as the siren song of Party Cove.

Legend has it Party Cove is frequented by celebrities and athletes -- the likes of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, John Cusack, Mel Gibson, Cedric the Entertainer and Marshall Faulk. In reality, the cove belongs solely to the redneck, albeit an offshoot of the species wealthy enough to afford vacation homes and luxury boats. As one Web site puts it: "Party Cove is to rednecks what Mecca is to Muslims."

While their hillbilly predecessors were content to entertain themselves in the Skee-Ball arcades, salt-water-taffy shops and bumper-car rinks that early on earned the lake the nickname "Lake of the Go Karts," this new breed of hoosier arrived in the early 1980s with money to burn. Sioux City car dealers, south St. Louis contractors and Omaha insurance brokers built million-dollar lakefront homes and thought nothing of dropping $500,000 on ocean-worthy speedboats.

In need of a place to show off their vessels, the rednecks congregated in the lake's "Millionaire Cove," so named for the mansions lining its shore. When property owners protested the cocaine- and alcohol-fueled benders taking place outside their homes, the party moved to another cove before earning the ire of homeowners there as well.

For the past ten years Party Cove has tethered its tawdry tit city in Anderson Hollow Cove, alongside Lake of the Ozarks State Park. (To find Party Cove, just follow the armada of boats streaming past the Grand Glaize Bridge on any weekend afternoon.) That the weekly revelry takes place on the doorstep of one of the state's largest nature preserves is a paradox that does not escape Sue Holst, deputy director of Missouri State Parks.

"Party Cove is one of the more frustrating management issues we face," says Holst, who claims the cove's litter and boat traffic have gravely impaired the park's shoreline. "But our control stops at the shoreline. Unless we get the cooperation of boaters to move it someplace else, there's little we can do."

Back on the water, Tyler, a student at the University of Illinois, doesn't seem too concerned with the state park as his friends lift his legs high over his head and place a beer tap securely in his mouth. His keg stand completed, Tyler lets out a boisterous holler and jumps on the back of the boat, offering Mardi Gras beads to the first woman who'll show him her breasts.

His girlfriend is the first to respond, flashing her perky gumdrops toward Tyler and a raft of men canoeing their way through the gauntlet. The men carry with them a homemade beer bong fashioned out of a metal funnel, on which they've scribbled the words: "Bitch Bang." When they see the girlfriend's boobies, they pound the metal funnel and bray like donkeys.

Minutes later a minor fracas breaks out when three middle-aged men on a cruiser vie for use of the boat's lone binoculars. A hundred yards away -- atop a Scarab speedboat -- a pair of naked strippers dance about, rubbing each other's augmented breasts and clean-shaven clam shells.

Passing off the binoculars to his friends, one of the sunburned men on the cruiser remarks knowingly: "Welcome to the redneck Riviera. You gotta love it!"

At the Bridgeview Marina at Osage Beach, the scene is decidedly less bawdy -- even if the conversation is not. Seated inside his air-conditioned station house, Greg Newell, owner of the marina, wraps up a story about the time he saw a crew filming a porn flick in Party Cove.

"That was the first time I saw fisting," he offers nonchalantly.

As proprietor of one of the last outposts before entering the Party Cove, Newell has heard plenty of wild tales of the hell-raising. His stories quickly gets others talking, including Sergeant Nick Humphrey of the Missouri Water Patrol, who's stopped by the marina for a caffeinated energy drink and a break from the brutal August sun.

In his ten years with the Water Patrol, Humphrey has earned the de facto title Czar of Party Cove. Between 2000 and 2002, he led the nation in the number of BWIs handed out, averaging about 70 a year, with the majority of the arrests coming in or around the cove.

But it's not the stories of the routine drunks that Humphrey spills forth today. It's the lascivious, twisted stuff of Party Cove legend.

Humphrey tells of the time he entered Party Cove in search of a drunk who'd reportedly fallen from a boat: "We're bringing up this blue-lipped corpse, and the people in the nearby boats aren't missing a beat," he recalls. "When they see the body, they toast it with a few cheers and keep on drinking."

Then there's the story of the guy who called Water Patrol claiming his wife of just a few months had been sexually assaulted in Party Cove. When Humphrey went to investigate, he says he found the men accused of the assault idly drinking beer and acting as though nothing had happened. When questioned, they freely admitted to having sex with the newlywed but added a few details that the husband had left out of his initial complaint. The wife consented to the orgy, and they had the film to prove it.

"I took the film to Wal-Mart," recalls Humphrey. "They were right. That woman was not getting raped. That I know."

Not to be outdone, Newell one-ups Humphrey with his story of a gay houseboat.

"There was a guy getting a blowjob on the lower deck, and another guy on the top deck was pissing on his head," claims Newell. "The guy getting sucked off just stands there pretending he's washing his hair!"

"Gross!" cries Diana Jacobson, a 23-year-old Water Patrol trainee. She grimaces at Newell's story as though she herself were being doused by the golden shower.

If Lake of the Ozarks ever aired a Baywatch series, Jacobson would no doubt fill the lead role. A corn-fed beauty from northern Illinois, Jacobson wears her blond hair pulled back tight in a ponytail. Hypnotic green eyes lie hidden behind her stylish black shades. Her golden-brown arms reveal an athletic, taut frame.

By joining Water Patrol, Jacobson has defied the family trade of firefighting in favor of police work. Still, she remains daddy's little girl, as is evident by the bulky bulletproof vest protruding under her shirt.

"I promised my dad I'd wear it," she says. "It's not so much the bullets he's concerned about. We stop a lot of fishermen. They all carry knives."

After hearing Newell and Humphrey's stories, Jacobson agrees it would be best if her father goes on thinking that anglers pose her biggest risk. Dad doesn't need to hear about the legions of dirty old drunks who routinely beg and plead that Jacobson give them a thorough "cuff and stuff."

"They're always yelling out: 'Arrest me! Arrest me!'" says Jacobson, blushing. "I was busting one guy for a BWI, and he asked if I wanted to party on his boat later that night. I was like, 'No way!'"

Just a month into her gig patrolling Party Cove, Jacobson has seen so much debauchery that she's already immune to much of the flesh circus unfolding around her, offering blind indifference to the exposed breasts and free-swinging genitals.

"You don't want to pay attention to those parts," she says. "You look past them."

Within minutes of pulling out of Newell's marina, she and Humphrey are waved over by a boat, on which sits a woman in her 50s wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and cutoff jeans. Jacobson doesn't so much as bat an eye at the scene, even when she's tying up to the boat and a wave nearly sends her flying face-first into the woman's weathered bosom.

The couple on the boat, George and Marj Long of central Illinois, want to know why Humphrey and Jacobson didn't pull over a cruiser that recently sent waves crashing through a no-wake zone.

Humphrey explains that he did not see the cruiser, then offers the woeful story he tells everyone who complains of Water Patrol's inability to police the lake.

"We have over 1,100 miles of shoreline to patrol," he says. "That's more shoreline than the entire coast of California."

When Union Electric (now Ameren UE) dammed the Osage River in 1931 to create the Lake of the Ozarks, the thought was that the reservoir -- once the world's largest man-made lake -- would serve as a rustic sportsmen's paradise catering to hunters and fishermen. Seventy years later, the outdoorsmen who first flocked to the lake have been replaced by fun-loving hedonists.

As many as 30,000 leisure craft now take to the lake on summer weekends, making the job of policing the area nearly impossible for the chronically understaffed Water Patrol. With just thirteen officers -- and rarely more than half of them on the water at any given time -- vast regions of the lake are left with little or no police service.

As if on cue, Humphrey receives a radio call for a boat that's broken down on the Little Niangua branch of the lake, some 27 miles away from Party Cove. He and Jacobson were to spend the late afternoon patrolling the cove; now, as the closest Water Patrol unit to the distressed boat, they have no choice but to respond to the emergency call. With Jacobson at the wheel, the two water cops take off across the lake's choppy surface, leaving Party Cove without its sober chaperones.

Back inside the cove, the sun hangs low in the western sky, and the heathen hijinks are slowly winding down.

After six hours of drinking in the hot sun, the University of Illinois students lie about their boat, woozy and sunburned. On an adjacent boat, a bachelor party props up one of its passed-out participants and decorates the fallen warrior with sunglasses, a pen-drawn mustache and an empty beer can, à la Weekend at Bernie's.

A woman named Malinda from Kansas City swims about the last remaining boats, asking for cigarettes. Drunk on Jell-O shots and rum runners (a Party Cove favorite consisting of white and dark rum, pineapple juice and bitters), she throws a temper tantrum when she fails to find her minty cancer-stick of choice.

"Goddamn it, I want me some Camel Men-thawl Lights!" she barks. "Why don't you have some Camel Men-thawl Lights!?"

Across the cove a crowd investigates an accident in which a rented ski boat collided with a cruiser. In Missouri, boaters born before 1984 are not required to have a license -- or, for that matter, any experience piloting a boat. When coupled with the excessive drinking and boat traffic in Party Cove, the unskilled boaters make this a particularly treacherous place.

In 2003 the Columbia Daily Tribune named the Lake of the Ozarks one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the nation. The article cited statistics that placed the lake behind only the Atlantic Ocean and the Colorado River in the number of boating accidents, with 725 wrecks occurring between 1997 and 2001. Of the 293 boating accidents reported last year in Missouri, nearly half came in the Lake of the Ozarks.

But for now the few remaining partygoers need not concern themselves with boating safety. As the revelers depart Party Cove on this Saturday evening, Sergeant Humphrey has yet to return from the call that ferried him to the opposite end of the lake. Typically he'd be stationed at the mouth of the cove right now, trying his best to determine the slightly buzzed from the egregious drunks.

"The challenge is knowing that nearly everyone out there has been drinking," Humphrey says. "More often than not, when we pull someone over for suspicion of drunk driving, they're more than double the legal limit."

At ten o'clock Monday morning, diver Tim McNitt and his protégé, Wes Coursey, pilot their pontoon boat to the east shore of Party Cove, which is now remarkably peaceful. Fishermen cast their lines in the middle of the bay. A great blue heron, with its tremendous six-foot wingspan, skims across the surface of the lake.

The only visible reminders that a party ever occurred here is the litter hugging the shoreline, and two rented houseboats on which a dozen college students are slowly waking from their hangovers.

McNitt was out diving in the cove the night before, but having found nothing more valuable than a pink strap-on, he's at it again. After a half-hour submerged on the bottom, he climbs aboard the boat and empties a mesh bag onto the table.

Among the goodies he's uncovered are hundreds of Mardi Gras beads, a disposable camera, a half-dozen pairs of sunglasses, a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade and a pair of ripped bikini bottoms advertising a nonexistent Web site, www.eatme-inc.com.

Having quickly tossed overboard the worthless camera and moldy bottle of booze, McNitt and Coursey find solace in identifying two pairs of sunglasses as Serengetis and Oakleys, both of which retail well north of $100. McNitt sells the sunglasses for between $50 and $100 a pop, meaning today's dive netted anywhere from $50 to $200. Not a great day, but not a bad one either.

Buoying McNitt's spirit is the knowledge that in Party Cove buried treasure is a renewable resource, and Labor Day promises a bountiful harvest.

"Sometimes when you hit a good pocket of stuff down there, it's like going to the grocery store," he muses. "Other times, you're not so lucky."