The Death Zone: Five bodies found in Auburn canal leave unanswered questions

Latest Wise Canal victim remembered as smart, friendly but caught up in risky, homeless lifestyle; Who were the five who died?
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Five bodies recovered from the Wise Canal over 16 months – including three since March 26 – are unusual, an Auburn Police spokesman said Tuesday. But there continue to be no indications of foul play in the deaths of five men found in the canal since last January, Capt. John Ruffcorn said. Police continue to be open to new information and will follow up on anything the public can help with on the five who died, he said. “It is an unusual number – it’s out of the ordinary for so many in such a short period of time,” Ruffcorn said. Ruffcorn said that it’s safe for people to continue to use the canal trails, which run alongside the 30-foot-wide ditch of flowing water. The water runs unhindered from North Auburn until the water flows into a pipe at Mt. Vernon Road. Salvation Army caseworker Jon Morningstar works with Auburn’s homeless. Many frequent the Wise Canal trails. Morningstar said he can understand how someone slipping into the water would have a near-impossible time getting out. And Morningstar said that since the mid-1990s he hasn’t heard of anything that even comes close to the rash of recent canal deaths. Two 17-year-old boys died in a PG&E canal near Newcastle on June 23, 1994, after being sucked into a flume with a grate at the end while swimming near the Auburn Wastewater Treatment Plant. That sparked increased warning signage and other measures there. “It is strange,” Morningstar said. “The only thing I can think of is someone drinking, making their way late at night. When you’re walking along the canal you can see how mossy it is. If someone falls in, I can’t see how anyone could get out.” None of the men were seen going into the water. The most recent canal victim – 39-year-old homeless man Matthew Templeman – was found May 5 in the Wise Forebay debris rack. Theoretically, he could have slipped into the water anywhere between the vicinity of Bell Road, 7 miles to the north, and the forebay. Monty Pyatt, a homeless man, was at a stretch of the canal off New Airport Road that some call The Death Zone. Pyatt said he had seen Templeman swimming last summer in the water there. Templeman could stir things up with people, Pyatt said. “But I really doubt anyone did him in,” he said. “It’s just people being stupid – occasionally. Matt was a nice guy but he had a tendency to be bipolar.” Another homeless man, who was napping under a tree behind the Auburn Village shopping center, said that he wasn’t going near the canal. He declined to give his name. “I’m freaked out,” the man said. “All those people – it’s really strange. I’d really like to know what happened.” Ruffcorn said trail users should continue to use common sense when near the swift-flowing, cold and deep canal. They should also be cognizant of their surroundings, be aware there are homeless encampments in the vicinity of the canal and be wary of anything they feel is out-of-the-ordinary or unsafe. While the investigation into the deaths is ongoing and police aren’t counting anything out, the lack of evidence to the contrary is pointing toward the possibility of all the deaths being accidental, Ruffcorn said. Investigators looking for bruises, cuts or broken bones found no evidence of foul play on the recovered bodies, he said. The fifth death in such a short period of time has spurred PG&E to hire a contractor to patrol the canal to visit homeless camps in the vicinity of the waterway to verbally reinforce the warnings it has posted along trails. Brian Swanson, PG&E spokesman, said that new effort will start Thursday. “The patrol service will meet with the homeless in the area to talk about the dangers of the canal and also hand out information on how they can stay safe,” Swanson said. The patrol will also be examining all its warning signs to make any necessary repairs, he said. “We’re doing everything we can to notify people on the canal and get the word out on the dangers,” Swanson said. ---------------------------------------------- SECOND STORY: HOMELESS CANAL VICTIM REMEMBERED AS SMART, FRIENDLY BUT CAUGHT UP IN RISKY LIFESTYLE ---------------------------------------------- Matthew Templeman was just another one of the dozens of homeless who inhabit the street corners and vacant lots of Auburn. But Templeman, whose body was found in the debris trap of an Auburn canal May 5, was a name and a face – and a senseless loss – to Sharon Vintze of What Would Jesus Do ministry. Templeman, 39, had been in Auburn for about a month when Vintze first met him. He’d drifted in from Oregon, liked what he found in the foothills and decided to lay his backpack down for awhile. “These deaths really hit me hard because they’re so senseless,” Vintze said. “It’s so sad. He was really bright, an intellectual. He went to the University of Washington and graduated with a degree in psychology.” Vintze said that in the five years she has volunteered in the Auburn area, she has known of 13 transients who have died. Authorities let her know because she can sometimes help with identification. Templeman was the second transient to have been found dead in the Wise Canal this past year – and the fifth person to have been found dead in the canal since January 2009. Auburn Police said no foul play was suspected at this time in Templeman’s death. Authorities have also not linked foul play to any of the others. Vintze said homeless people in the Auburn area live in a high-risk world. She noted that because of factors such as alcoholism, disabilities and risk of infections, they’re exposed to a high degree of harm. What Would Jesus Do provides help for those willing to come in from the cold and attempt to turn their lives around. But for many, it’s easier to put their trust in the streets than make that change, Vintze said. Templeman was an “easy-going guy,” Vintze said. “He could talk with just about anybody,” she said. “He enjoyed fellowship with people.” At first, Vintze didn’t notice any sign of addiction and she held out hope that he wouldn’t fall into the many traps open to the homeless. But by Christmas, Vintze had started to befriend others with addiction issues. “On Christmas morning, I saw him inebriated,” she said. “It was sad for me because when we first talked, he seemed so focused – and appeared he could stand on his own two feet.” By last week, Vintze heard that Templeman had just been released from Placer County Jail. “When you’re incarcerated and homeless, it’s usually for theft, loitering or illegal camping,” Vintze said. Vintze said she couldn’t speculate on why Templeman and another transient last July had found their way into the canal. But she said her opinion is that with homeless camps being moved out of an area next to Target to make way for a mini-storage facility, more of them are seeking out stretches at the sides of canals that provide some semblance of privacy. Vintze said another homeless man had fallen into the canal last spring, breaking his foot but surviving. That man would later die from complications from prescription drugs, she said. - Gus Thomson --------------------------------- SIDEBAR: DEATH IN THE CANAL --------------------------------- Five men have been found dead in the Wise Canal since January 2009. The most recent discovery of a body took place May 5. The five who died were: - David Lee Miller, 51, of Auburn. Miller’s body was recovered Jan. 14, 2009, in the Wise Canal after water agency workers spotted it floating by near Edgewood Road. His brother told the Journal that the disabled Placer High grad had been acting erratically in the weeks leading up to his death and an hour before his body was spotted had told construction workers at the Walgreens building site that someone was chasing him. - Bradford Newton Ashcraft, 61, was known to authorities as a transient who lived in the Auburn area’s homeless camps. His body was discovered July 29 lying on a bank next to the automatic strainer gate at the southern end of the Wise Forebay, Off Merry Knoll Road, the strainer cleans Wise Canal debris throughout the day. - Nicasio Garcia-Bonilla, 42, was described by Auburn Police as an Auburn resident. His body was found in the canal by Merry Knoll Road on March 26. A missing persons report had been filed 23 days earlier. - Larry James, 57, of Grass Valley. James’ body was found Feb. 28 in the Wise Canal near Merry Knoll and Mount Vernon roads. Auburn Police Sgt. Victor Pecoraro said after the body was discovered that there did not appear to be any suspicious circumstances surrounding James’ death. His body was recovered within 24 hours of his last being seen. - Matthew Templeman, 39, of Oregon. Also known to authorities as a transient, Templeman’s body was discovered May 5 in the debris rack at the end of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Wise Forebay. He had been living on the street in Auburn since last spring. – Gus Thomson