Probe links alcohol, drugs to Auburn canal death cluster

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Autopsy results on five bodies found in Auburn’s Wise Canal showed evidence of very high levels of drugs or alcohol in all the victims. A report issued by the Placer County Sheriff’s Department describes “a common theme” of substance abuse in the five deaths. But foul play has yet to be completely ruled out. Instead, investigators are saying that an extensive investigation revealed no signs of foul play in any of the deaths. “A common theme in all five deaths is indications that all the victims had a level of impairment from alcohol and/or drugs,” Lt. Jeff Ausnow said. “They were also all known to frequent the same area of the Wise Canal where the water is cold and swift.” Auburn’s David Miller was the first victim pulled out of the canal. The Placer County Sheriff’s Department said in the report that Miller was seen displaying bizarre behavior and running toward the canal before his Jan. 14, 2009, death. An autopsy revealed Miller was under the influence of both prescription drugs and marijuana at the time, the report said. The next canal victim – Auburn homeless man Bradford Ashcraft – died July 29 of what the Sheriff’s Department said was a heart attack. Toxicology results showed he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.32 percent – four times the 0.08 percent California law has established as the upper legal limit to drive a motor vehicle. The body of Nevada County resident Larry James – who was found Feb. 28 in the Wise Forebay – also revealed an unusually high alcohol level. The Sheriff’s Department stated tests showed a 0.32 percent level of alcohol in the bloodstream. Auburn’s Nicasio Garcia-Bonilla, whose body was found March 25 in the Wise Forebay was also drunk at the time of his death – with a 0.24 percent reading. The body of Matthew Templeman, another homeless Auburn man, was discovered in the forebay May 5. A blood test found that Templeman’s blood-alcohol level was also high but the condition of his body after being in the water for an extended length of time made determining an exact percentage impossible. The report issued this week links the five deaths to a possible lethal combination of drug or alcohol impairment and the dangers of the cold, swift-flowing canal. But it also underlines the lack of a discernable link between the deaths and any trace of foul play at this time. No one saw any of the men go into the open Pacific Gas & Electric Co. canal, which snakes from the Dry Creek Reservoir in North Auburn before flowing into a tunnel near Auburn’s Mount Vernon Road., None of the victims had injuries consistent with a struggle or assault from another person and there is no evidence of foul play in any of the cases, the report said. With the number of bodies being found in such a short period of time along the 3-mile stretch of the canal, public speculation has turned to a range of theories – from an accidental fall to suicide to the possibility that the victims were pushed in by a serial killer. The Sheriff’s Department teamed with Auburn Police and the county coroner’s division on an investigation that included what they describe as extensive interviews and an examination of forensic evidence culled from autopsies and toxicology reports of the victims’ blood. Investigators interviewed friends and family of victims, witnesses to events surrounding the victims’ deaths, local homeless shelter workers and visitors and advocacy group members, Ausnow said. The sheriff’s report provides a description of the five victims, their behavior and investigation results. In each death, the report underlines that the investigation found no signs of foul play. The report states: n On January 14, 2009, the body of David Lee Miller, 53, was found in the Wise Canal near Highway 49 and Live Oak Lane. Miller lived in a trailer park near the canal and was last seen by witnesses displaying bizarre behavior and running in the direction of the canal. Within minutes, another witness observed him floating in the canal with his head above water, indicating he was alive at that time. Autopsy results revealed that Miller was under the influence of prescription drugs and marijuana at the time of death. Additionally, Miller had pre-existing physical impairments that would make swimming very difficult. n On July 29, 2009, the body of Bradford Ashcraft Jr., 62, was found in the Wise Forebay of the Wise Canal. Ashcraft was a known transient in the Auburn area. The autopsy results for Ashcraft revealed he had suffered a lethal heart attack that was determined to be his cause of death. Additionally, Ashcraft’s blood-alcohol content was extremely high - four times the legal limit to drive. n On February 28, the body of Larry James, 58, was found in the Wise Forebay of the Wise Canal. On March 25, the body of Nicasio Garcia-Bonilla, 42, was also found in the Wise Forebay. James was a Nevada County resident who lived with family. Bonilla was a Placer County resident who lived in an apartment complex in the unincorporated area of Auburn. James and Bonilla were friends who were both known to be heavy drinkers. Both were last seen together extremely intoxicated and stumbling around the area of the canal, the sheriff’s report said. Witnesses report that James had made several comments that he could swim the canal despite the cold and swift waters. Autopsy results revealed the cause of death for both men was drowning. Toxicology results revealed high levels of alcohol for both subjects, Bonilla was three times the legal limit to drive and James was four times the legal limit. Evidence and witness statements indicate James and Bonilla likely went into the water at the same time. James’ body was found within 24 hours of his death, Bonilla was found approximately four weeks later. n On May 5, the body of 40-year-old Mathew Templeman was found in the Wise Forebay of the Wise Canal. Templeman was an Auburn-area transient who was known to camp near the Wise Canal. He was also known to bathe and swim in the canal despite the cold and swift waters. Witnesses report that Templeman was a heavy drinker and autopsy results revealed a high level of alcohol in his system at the time of death. Because Templeman had been in the water for quite some time before he was discovered, the condition of his body made an exact blood-alcohol percentage impossible. After Templeman’s death in May, the Journal had requested information on the toxicology reports from the five deaths. Because the investigation has been concluded, information can now be released, Ausnow said. Since then, PG&E has installed four safety cables with floats across the canal for people to grab and get to shore. The corporation is also installing 6-foot-high fence along the Auburn waterway.