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Civil disobedience speeds up county's posting of warning signs at Hagg Lake

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: NANCY TOWNSLEY - Michael Medill of Gaston pauses near a memorial to four members of a Hillsboro family who drowned at Hagg Lake last month. He erected unauthorized warning signs at the Sain Creek Picnic Area Saturday and was cited for criminal mischief.Michael Medill says he saved a pregnant woman from drowning in the rapids of Arizona’s Salt River in 1972 and a 5-year-old boy from drowning in a Costa Rican swimming pool a decade ago.

Those experiences, said the Gaston-area resident, gave him a visceral reaction to the drowning deaths of four members of a single family in Hagg Lake last month — a reaction that sparked a little civil disobedience and a big media furor and ultimately accelerated important safety changes at the lake.

Jeremy Scholl, 3, Michael Garcia-Ixtacua, 13, Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua, 25, and Jova Ixtacua-Castano, 42, all of Hillsboro, perished in the water the week before Labor Day, a time of year when the channel formed by Sain Creek — hidden beneath the surface — is especially treacherous. Washington County Sheriff’s Office investigators believe one member of the family stepped beyond the dropoff and began struggling in the water — and that other members tried to help.

All drowned Monday, Aug. 25. A memorial service at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Hillsboro last Friday featured three caskets; Gabriela was buried with her 3-year-old son.

Medill, 66, has struggled with his emotions since the tragedy. “I was sad,” he said, “and then I got angry.”

On Saturday, the Gaston resident took direct action in his crusade to keep people from a watery fate in the scenic, 900-acre lake, a popular recreational haven just miles from his home.

“More people could drown here,” he said. “It really bothers me.”

After bolting several unauthorized, homemade warning signs to trees, a loaner life-vest station and a covered pagoda at the lake’s Sain Creek Picnic Area, Medill paused near a memorial to the dead.

“This just kills me,” said the ponytailed Medill, gesturing toward four wooden crosses before removing his blue baseball cap and wiping tears from his eyes.

English and Spanish

Medill’s distress when he first learned of the Garcia-Ixtacua drownings sent him to his shop in Laurelwood, where he created more than a half-dozen placards, filling them with messages in English and Spanish and including pictures meant to warn folks of the dangerous dropoff beneath the Sain Creek inlet’s serene surface.

“It’s a hazard for people who aren’t aware or who can’t swim,” said Medill, who grew up in Beaverton and moved to Laurelwood six years ago. “You wade out a couple of feet and it’s 20 feet down.”

He was incensed to learn that even though a nearby kiosk offers free loaner life jackets, the county hadn’t put up any signs explaining why non-swimmers who were just planning to wade in shallow water should wear them — and nothing identifying the potentially life-threatening dropoff. None of the drowning victims wore a life jacket.

Eleven people have drowned in Hagg Lake’s Sain Creek inlet since 1980, according to research by Ken Bilderback, a Gaston resident and lake-safety watchdog.

“I thought, ‘There is something seriously wrong here,’” said Medill, who lugged six signs proclaiming “Danger!” and “Peligrosa!” to the picnic area Saturday morning.

“Do you have a life jacket?” he called out to a youngster who was headed toward the lake. “Be careful out there.”

A neighbor of Medill’s, Michael Stephens, showed up Saturday to support his friend. Newspaper and TV news reporters with cameras also arrived to record Medill’s actions.

“I’d like to see the county, or whoever collects [day-use] fees at the park gate, do something,” said Stephens, who has lived in Laurelwood for nine years. “There’s an inherent danger here, and to ignore it is reckless endangerment.”

Civil disobedience

Medill kept an eye out for law enforcement as he used an impact wrench to bolt the signs onto infrastructure and trees around the Sain Creek picnic area.

Less than an hour later, county sheriff’s deputies approached Medill and cited him for second-degree criminal mischief, a misdemeanor with a $5,000 fine attached.

The citation ordered Medill to appear in Washington County Circuit Court for an arraignment Oct. 7.

KOIN 6 TV cameras captured the confrontation on camera and posted clips of Washington County Parks Superintendent Todd Winter telling Medill, “There’s kind of a right way and wrong way to go about doing this,” and Medill saying, “There’s a wrong way of eight people almost drowning two years ago and no signs being put up to educate people.”

Medill said he was happy for his brush with the law.

“I wanted to get arrested, but I got the second-best thing — a humongous ticket that will get this issue noticed,” he said. “I’m overjoyed I got this [citation], because now I have a foot in the door to appear before a judge who’ll put an end to this nonsense of not putting up signs to safeguard the public.”

By Sunday, county employees had removed Medill’s signs, leading to more TV and online news updates.

Medill, who had initially vowed to keep re-installing signs until officials put up their own, thought he might get arrested if he continued his civil disobedience, and decided he’d be more effective outside of jail.

He added that the Washington County Sheriff’s deputy who wrote up his citation also shook his hand afterward.

‘We need a united public’

By Monday morning, it appeared Medill’s actions as a citizen vigilante had struck a chord with Washington County officials, who posted temporary signs warning of a steep dropoff in the water, beyond which the Garcia-Ixtacuas fell and drowned.

County spokesman Philip Bransford promised permanent signs would go up later this week and other safety measures would follow. (See sidebar.)

Bransford said the media attention to Medill’s actions helped speed up the county’s actions.

“We were already talking about signage,” he said, but “the incident over the weekend made us recognize how we need a united public.” Instead, county officials felt like they were losing public support.

Bransford cautioned that “signs can’t be the sole solution. We need a human being to do what the sign says.”

Still, he said, county officials were getting lots of calls about Medill and worried the negative media coverage might hamper their efforts, so decided to move quickly to post approved warning signs.

“Now we can go forward with the other things, too. There’s a heck of a lot more to do,” Bransford said. “We’re not just dusting our hands off and walking away.”

For Medill, the news was a reason to celebrate.

“I heard that and ... yay!” he exulted. “The ball is starting to roll. This means the county recognizes the danger and are facing up to their accountability.

“We’ve been after the county to do this for two years.”

Jill Rehkopf Smith contributed to this story.

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