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FBI To Investigate Teen-Age Drowning

August 1, 1989

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) _ The FBI will determine if a black teen-ager’s civil rights were violated before he drowned while trying to swim across the rain-swollen Ottawa River, allegedly to elude police, an FBI agent said Monday.

The Fire Division’s water-rescue unit was not sent for more than an hour - including a five-minute wait for a shift-change to avoid overtime - prompting demands by some city officials and civil rights leaders that City Manager Philip Hawkey investigate the incident.

The FBI was asked to investigate by the Rev. Floyd Rose, a leader of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of ministers active in civil rights issues. Rose contends that if Robert Thomas had been white, rescuers would have been sent much sooner.

Thomas, 16, a high school honor student, was among four youths who police say tried to steal several cases of soda early Wednesday from a store near the University of Toledo.

Senior agent Harold Jones said the FBI will focus on whether Thomas’ civil rights were violated before he jumped into the river.

″We’re not going to look into the fact that he drowned and there may have been a delay in responding with rescue people. That’s not a civil rights aspect,″ Jones said. ″We’re going to open up a preliminary investigation this week just to determine what the facts are, to see if there’s any reason to go any further with it.″

Agents will have 20 days to complete the investigation. The results will be sent to the Department of Justice for a final determination.

City Councilman Jack Ford demanded Monday that Hawkey answer questions about the incident. Rose also called for a city investigation.

″It’s obvious to me that they saw a fleeing suspect rather than a drowning youth, and that sometimes clouds your mind and clouds your thinking as to what to do next,″ Rose said.

Thomas jumped into the river at about 6 a.m. while being chased by a university police officer, authorities said.

At least 65 minutes elapsed before Fire Division rescue personnel were sent out, according to recorded conversations between Fire Chief William Winkle and a dispatcher. All fire department dispatches are taped.

The tapes indicated that a city police officer on the scene did not call for the rescue unit immediately, and that Winkle was reluctant to send the unit until he had arrived at the river.

Once Winkle decided that rescue workers were needed, he ordered an additional five-minute delay until the next shift came on duty, saying he did not want to pay overtime.

Winkle said he viewed his department’s role as recovering a body and not saving a life.

The rescue unit was sent at 7:05 a.m., but it took another hour before the crew began searching the water. Thomas’ body was found that afternoon, 10 feet from where he entered the river.

Police Chief Marti Felker said Monday that he would determine if police policies and procedures were followed and if any new ones are needed.

Late Monday, Hawkey and Felker held a news conference to give the police version of the events that followed Thomas’ diving into the river. Neither Winkle nor any fire department spokesman appeared at the news conference.

The university officer, John Betori, last week told reporters he warned Thomas of the river’s swift current seconds before Thomas dove in. Betori also said he saw Thomas struggle and go under twice before disappearing.

Chief Felker, however, said Betori told city police Sgt. Dennie Sehlmeyer - the first Toledo officer to arrive - that he thought Thomas had made it to the other side and was hiding under debris.

″That’s why they searched the riverbank before calling in rescue crews,″ Felker said. Telephone calls to Betori’s home Monday were not answered.

Felker said Sehlmeyer cut down on confusion when he called for help on a nearby pay telephone instead of his hand radio. The chief said the radio can only contact police and the water-rescue unit is operated by the Fire Division.

″What he did actually helped speed things up because he didn’t have to go through a police dispatcher. He went straight to the fire dispatcher,″ he said.

Hawkey said he would investigate the incident, but said both divisions correctly followed procedures.

″We want to show the community that proper procedures were followed and diligence was exercised for the care and concerns of everybody involved,″ Hawkey said.

Ford said he could not understand why more emphasis was not placed on saving the youth’s life.

″Throughout this, I am reminded that individuals have fallen into the water - sometimes for minutes - and have been revived. So time was of essence throughout this whole scenario, and yet that thought never went through the minds of our officers,″ he said.

The three other youths suspected in the theft remain at large.

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