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Under sunny, summer skies, deserted park yields grim find

Four members of a Hillsboro family, spanning three generations, appear to have drowned Monday in Henry Hagg Lake near Gaston.

Jova Ixtacua-Castano, 42; her son, Michael Garcia-Ixtacua, 13; her daughter, Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua, 25; and Gabriela’s son, Jeremy Scholl, 3, apparently all drowned together during an outing to the Sain Creek Picnic Area on a hot summer day.

The four family members all shared the same Hillsboro home, according to Sgt. Bob Ray of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Emergency personnel first learned of a problem around 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 25, after two people on the east side of the lake looked across the water and spotted something floating near the opposite shore.

Unable to see what it was, the two walked around the dried-up shoreline to the other side and found 3-year-old Jeremy floating face-down.

“He was about four or five feet off the bank,” said Dave Nemeyer, spokesman for Forest Grove Fire & Rescue.

The bystanders pulled the unconscious youngster from the water and began performing CPR, to no avail. Emergency responders also administered medications to try and start the boy’s heart, “but at no time did his heart rhythm change,” said Nemeyer. “There were no signs of life.”

Rescue crews reporting to the site found cell phones, beach towels, a cooler and shoes abandoned on a picnic table, along with a small dog running loose with its leash dragging behind it.

They also found an unclaimed car in the parking lot and connected the license plates to the Hillsboro family. They began to wonder if all four family members might have gone under the water after one of them had trouble.

Sheriff’s deputies, crews from Gaston Fire, FGF&R and a dive team from the Newberg Fire Department began scouring campgrounds and the lake, searching for other bodies until about 10:30 p.m., then resumed the search at 10 a.m. Tuesday, with help from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Dive Rescue team.

The lake was closed to the public all day Tuesday while the dive teams plied their rescue boats through the lake’s sparkling blue-green water and a cluster of emergency vehicles waited near the shade of the picnic area’s huge trees.

Shortly before noon, the Clackamas County team, which had five divers in the water at the time, discovered one body and found the other two in less than half an hour. All were in close proximity to each other, close to the ledge where the lake bottom suddenly drops off — and about 100 feet away from where 3-year-old Jeremy was found, Ray said.

The dive team wrapped the bodies in special mesh bags and delivered them to Boat Ramp C, where a medical examiner began examining them, Ray said.

Despite there being a large gathering on the other side of the picnic area and people nearby in the woods at the time of the apparent drownings, Ray said, “we have no witnesses to anything.”

The tragedy is reminiscent of a near-calamity at Sain Creek two years ago, when eight children and two adults were plucked from the water by alert bystanders after falling from a muddy ledge just off shore from a shallow spot where they were wading.

Nemeyer said he couldn’t recall an incident that dramatic at the popular lake in the past two years — until Monday.

“I came home and just shut everything off,” he said. “It was one of those kinds of calls.”

The 3-year-old was not wearing a life jacket, even though a kiosk offering free life-preservers — sponsored by the Washington County Safe Kids Coalition — sits in clear view near the parking lot with instructions in both English and Spanish, Ray said.

Nemeyer hypothesized that the family may have been unaware of the dangerous channels that sometimes form where the creek flows into the lake.

“It’s really muddy there — you can’t see the bottom,” said Nemeyer. “You can be standing in 4 feet of water and then all of a sudden you’re in 8 feet or 15 feet.

“That water looks slow and it looks swimmable, but those drop-offs are treacherous. It isn’t like a swimming pool.”

Ray said this kind of tragedy is rare and hard to take in. “For a whole family — three generations — that just doesn’t happen.”

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