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Tragedy Strikes Two City Kids on First Scouting Trip

June 20, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ They were city kids on their first Cub Scout camping trip. And when they came across a lake on a hot summer day, they did what kids will do - they jumped in.

First one boy drowned, and then another, and no one seems to know exactly how or why.

Did Joel Nieves dive into Lake Ohrbach in grief after the body of his friend, Luis Ruiz, was pulled from the bottom? Or did the two 9-year-old Brooklyn boys drown together?

″We’re in the process now of ascertaining that specific information,″ said Deputy Inspector William Wallace, the detective in charge of the case, as an investigation into the weekend deaths continued Monday.

Joel and Luis were both members of Cub Scout Pack 74, which is affiliated with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. With 16 other boys, they had gone to Camp Pouch, a 130-acre oasis of woodland on Staten Island, on Friday night for their first weekend camp out.

They were less than 10 miles from home, just over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn, but a world apart.

″They were going to make a nice weekend of it, and they had the best of intentions,″ Bob Williams, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, said of the Cub pack’s adult leaders. ″They were doing what we want them to do - take the kids to camp, let them sleep outside, see the stars, the whole thing.″

The leaders were warned by the camp director, both verbally and in writing, that the lake was off-limits for swimming, Williams said. The lake is open only later in the summer, when there is full-time supervision.

But Saturday grew hot - it was 85 degrees that afternoon - and the Cub leaders apparently decided to let the boys wade into the water. ″What could go wrong when you’re wading, right?″ said Williams.

But things went very wrong.

First Luis was seen slipping beneath the surface. There were frantic efforts to rescue him, culminating when a nearby Boy Scout troop formed a human chain and methodically combed through the water.

About 15 minutes after Luis had vanished, he was found, about 20 feet offshore and eight feet underwater, lying in the mud on the bottom of the lake. He was taken to Staten Island Hospital, where he died Sunday evening.

About an hour after Luis was found, the Cub leaders discovered Joel was missing. One Boy Scout - 17-year-old Raymond Goffin, who had pulled Luis from the water - said he had observed Joel sitting on the shore, looking distressed and saying, ″I was supposed to go down to the bottom with him.″

Another person - a woman who was with the Cub pack - said she saw the boy running up a trail away from the lake, according to Williams. A search of the campground ensued, but it was not until Sunday morning that anyone looked in the lake.

At 9:40 a.m., Police Department scuba divers found Joel’s body there, not far from where his friend had been found.

Joel Nieves, the son of a leader in Brooklyn’s Hispanic community, was to have received an award for excellence at Public School 19 on Monday. Instead, it was to be accepted posthumously by friends.

″He could have been a future leader of our community - a lawyer, a teacher, a public official,″ said David Santiago, who works with Joel’s father, Saul Nieves, at a community group, Casa del Barrio. ″He was a very disciplined kid, a very astute kid. ... I was very impressed by the level of sensitivity that Joel had.″

Santiago said he doubted the Boy Scouts’ version of events - that Joel had jumped into the lake after Luis was pulled out. He criticized the Police Department for not sending scuba divers into the lake immediately.

Wallace, the police detective, said he still didn’t know what happened, but that four witnesses so far had told authorities that they saw Joel out of the water after Luis was found.

He wouldn’t rule out the possibility of criminal charges against one of the adults who allowed the youths into the water, but that didn’t appear likely. ″We’re going further with the investigation only to ... ascertain exactly what occurred,″ Wallace said.

Williams, the Boy Scout spokesman, placed the blame squarely on the Cub Scout leaders. ″While we understand that kids are kids, that’s why we have adult leadership,″ he said. ″The adults are supposed to follow the rules and regulations. I think that’s where this one went wrong.″

But he said the Scouts wouldn’t take any action against the pack leaders.

″We’re very sorry that it happened. Our hearts go out to the parents; our hearts go out to everybody involved,″ Williams said. ″The individual who’s responsible, he’s got to live with this for the rest of his life.″

None of the scout leaders could be reached for comment. There was no answer at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, where the pack has its headquarters, and neither the Boy Scouts nor the police would give out the leaders’ names.

However, in an interview with The New York Times, Felix Gomez, who was identified as an assistant cubmaster, said that another, unnamed assistant had allowed the boys to go into the water. Gomez said he had forbidden the scouts from swimming or fishing.

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