Beck floundered in the channel while Sander made it safely to the riverbank. A small crowd of people, including Genes own mother, watched the young man struggle, flail and scream for 10 minutes before sinking 26 feet to the bottom of the river. Volunteer rescue divers werent paged, but they heard on the police scanner that someone was drowning. They rushed to the river and arrived about 10 minutes after Gene Beck sank -- still time, according to medical experts, for rescue and revival. But city police officers on the scene ordered them to stand by. The divers feet never touched the water.
After an emotional, six-day trial that ended April 25th, the jury awarded Sharon and Galen Beck, Genes parents, a $600,000 judgment against the county of Manistee. The suit contended that the county had deprived Eugene Beck of his 14th Amendment rights of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The city of Manistee agreed to pay $300,000 before the trial started, with no admission of guilt.
The tragedy unfolded quickly that summer night, but was really a perfect storm of governmental policy made long before Beck hit the water, said Grant Parsons, who represented the Becks.
With the governmental policy they made, they killed the guy, Parsons said. They did just what the sheriff wanted them to do and they killed the guy.
Sharon Beck was driving home that night and caught sight of her son, dressed in Levis and a light shirt, just around 10 p.m. He was hanging around on the bridge with some friends. The drawbridge runs through the middle of the city. It has waist-high barriers that line the walkways on both sides of the bridge.
Hi mom! I love you, Gene called to her. Go home and make some coffee. Ill be home in 20 minutes.
Soon after Sharon arrived home, one of Genes friends rode a bike into her yard. Theyre in the water! Theyre in the water! he yelled.
Sharon rushed back to the bridge and realized her worst fears -- Gene, who couldnt swim, was struggling in the river.
She screamed and ran down the bank to save him. A firefighter tackled her so she wouldnt lose her own life and four people helped hold her down. Minutes passed and she saw the police officers standing on the shore, along with two volunteer divers. She had no idea why no one was moving to save her son. A Coast Guard boat was just two minutes away, and no one called for rescue. Gene was a hellion, she admitted, and when she heard someone yell, Its the Beck boy. I felt em just slack, she said.
The story behind the puzzling inaction was that of a long-standing turf war, according to Becks attorney, Grant Parsons.
It began in the winter of 1992 when Donald Vadeboncoeur, an elderly gentleman despondent over his relationship with his wife, drove into the Manistee River. City and county divers at the scene were ordered not to attempt a rescue because Director of Public Safety Robert Hornkohl thought it too dangerous. He feared their regulators would freeze up.
Vadeboncoeurs friend, Art Krause, a volunteer diver for years, tried to rescue his friend anyway, but it was too late.
Krause was angry. He and a firefighter at the scene decided to form a volunteer dive team. The eight-man team decided they would pay for their equipment and train without compensation in order to meet the stringent OSHA regulations.
But it was soon apparent that county Sheriff Ed Haik opposed the idea. He had misgivings about contracting private citizens to do a job normally assumed by law enforcement. Yet the sheriffs department was unwilling or unable to provide a rescue team of its own because of the liability and expense involved. There is no legal requirement for the sheriffs department to provide for rescue. The county did put together a recovery team, but thats what it was. Recovery. Recovering a body once it went down.
In an Oct. 13, 1993 article published in the Manistee News Advocate, Sheriff Haik explained that he wouldnt use the diving team because he was concerned about liability issues. He further stated the volunteer divers were trying to promise something that is not reasonable when they said they could perform a rescue operation.
SUBJECT TO ARREST
Yet the city of Manistee did sign a contract to secure the services of the volunteer Manistee Search and Rescue Dive team. Sheriff Haik, apparently wanting to ensure proper oversight, established a new policy which he announced at several televised city council meetings: Any civilian who attempted a water rescue without the sheriffs express permission would be subject to arrest. Next to the 9-1-1 dispatch instructions to tone or page the volunteer dive team for rescue is a hand-written instruction: Ed decides.
At 10:17 p.m., Gene Beck sank in the 50-degree water and didnt resurface.
Divers Gordon Cole and Michael Mosack arrived with equipment as early as 10:25 and as late as 10:38 p.m., an issue in dispute. There was still a chance they could save Gene. In cold water rescue, there is a golden hour -- about 24 minutes -- when its possible to revive a victim, according to court testimony.
Yet Mosack testified that a city police officer ordered him to go to the staging area. Chief Hornkohl, also on the scene, told him, Per Sheriff Haik, you are not to go in the water.
Mosack was asked at the trial why he simply didnt jump in the water and start the rescue despite the orders.
The reason that I didnt go in the water is I had been told previously by Sheriff Haik in person, and that is on record, That if we were to get in the water we could be charged.
Mosack was a corrections officer at the time and had recently applied for a position with the Michigan State Police. An arrest would end any chances he had.
Cole was told that the sheriffs divers would be there imminently and to stand by.
The county dive team arrived at 11 p.m. and recovered the body at 11:19 p.m.
As a testament to the resilience of the human body, electrical heart activity was still detected in Genes body 75 minutes after he had gone in.
Sheriff Dale Kowalkowski, the current sheriff, said the county was unjustly blamed and that Chief Hornkohl made the call that night to delay rescue.
The county government had little control over what the city of Manistee did, Kowalkowski said. Yet were paying the price. He could have done whatever he wanted and thats what the jury missed. They made Ed Haik out to be a murderer.
Hornkohl testified that he agreed to Haiks policy, in part, to ensure a good, long-term relationship with the county. Haik advised me they had two qualified personnel to provide this service. I believed Haik provided rescue services.
Was Haik ever advised of the drowning that night? Its unclear. Haik denied he heard anything. Unfortunately, the 9-1-1 audiotapes were destroyed shortly after Haik was sent a July 27, 1995 fax and left a message that a lawsuit was being considered.
For Sharon Beck, this turf war ended life as she knew it. She and her husband couldnt speak to each other for three weeks. She kept looking out the window expecting to see her son walk back home again. A few weeks after her son died, her three-month old grandson, born prematurely, passed away (his grave is right behind Eugenes).
Nearly every day for a year, Sharon, who had retired from work in canning factories and cleaning motel rooms, would leave her humble home near the center of town and go to the police station to find some sort of justice.
She sought out three attorneys before finding Grant Parsons, who agreed to take the case.
Its been a long legal road since the case was first reviewed by Judge Robert H. Bell in 1998 -- the case threading through a summary dismissal, a Sixth Circuit appeal, a no cause verdict in Bells trial court, another appeal, and then back to Bells trial court. Haik, as well as attorneys for the county and city did not return phone calls for this article.
The case established a precedent that essentially said the Becks were originally denied a fair trial because Judge Bell had disallowed a totality of evidenceseveral pieces of evidence that taken together were significant to the case.
CASE OF A LIFETIME
Parsons called the lawsuit a case of a lifetime.
This is why I went to law school. It gives you the ability to develop the truth and find the story. Eugene Beck is dead, but this case established two legal precedents and his name will be in the law books forever, he said.
I said I wasnt going to give up. What they did was wrong, said Sharon Beck of the long years in court. I was there. I saw what happened. No one was going to go in the water and it was Ed Haiks fault. I always thought when someone is drowning, you try to save him. You dont wait until they drown and then go in.
Sharon, Galen, and their daughter, Tina Kuzma, recently visited Genes grave to tell him it was over.
You can rest in peace now, said Sharon in a soft voice.
Eugene was always resting in peace, Tina said to her mother.
Now its time for you to rest and go on your way.
Galen wants to buy a new house in the city, while Sharon would prefer the country. Its been hard, she said.
More people in this town told me that weve got more guts and more backbone than anybody in this county to stand up to Ed Haik, Sharon said. I dont want this town to hurt me or do any more to me. They cant hurt me anymore, but I still want to move.
If someone were to fall into the Manistee River today, is there hope of rescue? Sheriff Kowalkowski said that the U.S. Coast Guard would definitely be called in the event of a drowning, but the county still has only a recovery team. The volunteer rescue dive team disbanded in 2000 because they knew theyd never get called, Krause said.
But there is hope.
No one has approached me from that dive team, Kowalkowski said. If they want to talk, if they showed up, we would consider any and all help. No one is going to get arrested. Hopefully this will never happen again.