Pushed in: Homeless man’s canal escape recounted by mother

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The deaths in Auburn’s Wise Canal started in January 2009. Last month, 50-year-old homeless man Richard Hill became the sixth man to turn up dead in the canal in less than two years. Now an Auburn woman has come forward with information that she said points to her son barely surviving becoming a seventh victim. Until this month, she said that neither she nor her son had shared the information with authorities. Betty Starr said her son told her he was pushed into the Wise Canal in November 2008, while walking in the darkness at water’s edge on a path behind the Auburn Village Shopping Center near Highway 49 and New Airport Road. “Most people don’t make it out to tell about it but he did,” Starr said. Kenny Minero, Starr’s son, wouldn’t live through 2009 to repeat his account to authorities. The Placer County Sheriff’s Office has investigated the first five deaths in the canal and concluded that while foul play couldn’t be completely ruled out, there were no signs of a struggle or attack on any of the bodies. No one saw any of the men go into the open Pacific Gas & Electric Co. canal, which snakes 3 miles from the Dry Creek Reservoir in North Auburn to the Wise Forebay off Mt. Vernon Road. Hill, who died Nov. 23, had called for help and his cries attracted a rescuer. But a sheriff’s spokesman said there was nothing to indicate Hill had been pushed. Minero, who had lived in Auburn since the age of 3, camped off New Airport Road in an area frequented by homeless people, Starr said. “He said he was walking back to camp in the dark and someone just came and pushed him,” Starr said. “I suggested that maybe he tripped and fell and he said he walked the path too many times for that to happen.” Minero told his mother that he lost his shoe as he floated downstream trying to catch his footing on the steep, slick concrete walls of the canal. “Every time he grabbed onto a branch to pull himself out, the branch would break,” Starr said. “His feet were worn out clean to the bone.” Eventually, her son – who stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed more than 200 pounds – did find a place to lift himself out. Minero said her son had his wound dressed by a nurse helping the homeless through services provided at the North Auburn Seventh-day Adventists Church. Starr said she would later examine it herself, to ensure the wounds were healing. But no one approached the Placer County Sheriff’s Office after the near-drowning, she said. “At the time, he was just thankful he got out,” Starr said. About two weeks later, Minero attended the community Thanksgiving dinner at the Gold Country Fairgrounds and told a Journal reporter he was “thankful to be alive.” A few weeks after that, Minero would be jailed for what his mother said was a minor infraction. “He got into a lot of trouble throughout his life but nothing anything would consider major,” she said. He was released from Placer County Jail after five months and died of a prescription medication overdose days after that on May 22, 2009. Starr said she contacted the Sheriff’s Office a week ago because her son’s story has continued to bother her and the death toll on the canal continues to grow. “There’s the possibility that someone is doing it for the thrill of it,” she said. Starr said her son theorized that he may have been pushed in by another member of the homeless community because there had been a rash of thefts at the camping area and an influx of new people from Roseville. The first victim – David Lee Miller, 51, of North Auburn – called out to construction workers in a panic that someone was chasing him, his brother told the Journal after walking the route Miller regularly took between his trailer and the Auburn Village Shopping Center. But Brian Miller, the first victim’s brother, was under the impression that mental problems the Auburn man had been having the last few months of his life were causing him to show signs of paranoia. Starr said observations by construction workers of a panicked David Miller have stuck with her as an indication that someone may be pushing people in. Since the fifth death in May, Pacific Gas & Electric has installed a 6-foot-high fence topped with barbwire on one side of the canal. The Sheriff’s Office has also stressed that substance abuse has been linked to the first five victims in the canal death cluster. Autopsy results on Hill to determine his potential blood-alcohol level won’t be known for several weeks. ------------------------------------------ Timeline: Six deaths and one near-death Jan. 14, 2009 David Lee Miller’s body recovered in Wise Canal near Edgewood Road. July 29, 2009 Bradford Newton Ashcraft, 61, found dead next to the automatic strainer gate at the southern end of Wise Forebay, off Merry Knoll Road. Feb. 28, 2010 The corpse of Larry James, 57, of Grass Valley discovered in Wise Canal near Merry Knoll and Mt. Vernon Roads. March 26, 2010 The body of Nicasia Garcia-Bonilla, 42, of Auburn, found in the canal by Merry Knoll Road. May 5, 2010 The body of homeless man Matthew Templeman, 39, found in the debris rack at the Wise Forebay. October 2010 PG&E completes work on fencing and other safety measures following the deaths of the five men. Nov. 23, 2010 Richard Hill dies in the Wise Canal, three days after being released from Placer County Jail. December 2010 The mother of the late Kenny Minero reveals her son claimed to have been pushed into the Wise Canal by an unknown assailant in November 2008. – Gus Thomson