Twenty-two years ago this weekend, seven people fell through the ice at Convict Lake and died.
Some, three adolescent boys on a school outing, died after they walked out on the thin and melting ice and fell into the icy, deep water.
The others, two Eastern Sierra locals and two school counselors, died trying to save the children and/or each other.
Onlookers, rescuers and the media watched helplessly from the lakeshore as head after head disappeared under the water, never to resurface alive again.
By the time it was over and the last body was pulled up from the bottom of the lake nearly a week later, the accident was the subject of media attention from around the country.
By the time it was over, the Eastern Sierra had lost two of its bravest; Inyo National Forest firefighter Clay Cutter, who lived at a cabin on the lake and went out to help the people in the water, and Long Valley Volunteer Fireman Vidar Anderson.
By the time it was over, the school the boys came from, a privately owned “therapeutic school” for troubled youth called Camp O’Neal (located near where the Whitmore Pool is now) would close under a storm of controversy over allegations of neglect, abuse, and sexual impropriety.
By the time it was over, the face of water and ice rescues in Mono County would forever change. The lessons from that fatal day lasted through generations of new emergency responders and are in place today. Never again, they said, and made changes in equipment and training to make be sure.
By the time it was over, nothing would ever be the same. Not for anyone who was at the lake that day, not for anyone who was left behind when all the cameras were gone.
Worst of all, by the time it was over, it became clear, far too clear, that quite likely the tragic, horrific event did not have to happen at all.
What were these teenage boys doing out on the thin ice in the first place? Why had these children from Camp O’Neal not been better supervised, especially after the camp had been the site of numerous visits by the Mono County Sheriff’s Department for violence, abuse and neglect?
Why did David Sellers, 15, and Shaawn Diaz, 15, and Ryan McCandless, 13, and two adult counselors, Randy Porter and David Myers, die that day in 1990? Why did Clay Cutter and Vidar Anderson die trying to rescue them?
For the first time, an in-depth book about the accident, the rescue, and the boys of Camp O’Neal is out. What it reveals about how the accident occurred is a testament to both the best of human heroism, and, profound human failure.
In fact, author Richard Mallard said the same woman who ran Camp O’Neal, Bobbi Trott Christensen, moved out of California only to open a similar school in Oregon years later. Within a year, he said, she was once again mired in allegations of abuse and neglect, until that school, too, shut down.
Perhaps even more chilling? A legacy of Camp O’Neil look-alikes still spread across the country, many with similar problems of abuse, neglect and even deaths.
“Who the hell knows any of this?” asked Mono County Sheriff Investigator John Rutkowski in the second to last sentence on the very last page of the book.
“Well, now you do,” said Ramsey Pierce, a fictional character created by the author to help carry the story.
Convict Lake A True Account of the Convict Lake Rescue is a gripping book, impossible to put down, impossible to forget. I moved into the Convict Lake cabin as an Inyo National Forest Service employee two years after the accident, the same cabin that Clay Cutter and his wife Terry and their three girls lived in the day of the accident. The same cabin Clay was chopping wood beside when a frantic Camp O’Neal boy came running in asking for help. The same cabin Terry watched her husband never come home to.
I opened the book and met the past and the present; Chris Baitx and Hap Hazard and John Rutkowski and Tom Gaunt and Kevin Worden and Ray and Bobbi Turner and Jon Buccowich and J.D. Daniels and Margie Palchak and Stan Eller and so many more. For this reason alone, the book is worth picking up for those of us that call ourselves Eastern Sierra locals.
But it is far more than that.
Backed by exhaustive research, with accuracy verified by some of the people closest to the accident (including Clay Cutter’s wife, Terry Cutter (now Terry Langdon) and retired Mono County Sheriff’s Deputy Hap Hazard), Mallard has written a masterful account of the terrible events of that day and the still-unfolding aftermath. It is a clear-headed book, a sober book, a clean book that never sensationalizes, never uses hyperbole. Nevertheless the book leaves the reader in tears, in fury, in awe, over and over again.
“I wanted to write a book and I have kept in touch with John Rutkowski, who worked with me when I lived in Mammoth in the 1970s (at Kittredge Sports) and one day he said, ‘Why don’t you write about Convict Lake?’” Mallard said.
“I said, ‘I’m not sure it’s a full book,’ and he said, ‘Yes, it is.’ And he was right.”
“I wasn’t going to talk to anyone who wanted to do a fictional version of that day, or who would sensationalize it,” Langdon said. “The events were dramatic enough. I had been approached six or seven times over the 22 years and people would only be able to go so far with this. There was some kind of emotional bloc with this story. But Dick’s been in touch with me every step of the way. He was able to get access to sealed records I couldn’t. He brought some closure. That’s what Dick did for me.”
But the sword of memory cuts both ways.
As Mallard dove into the research, he realized he had something far bigger than a story about a tragedy and rescue on his hands, gripping as that was. Camp O’Neal, the for-profit camp for troubled youth, was investigated by the state for serious allegations of sexual abuse, forcible drugging, and abuses from neglect to heating and clothing shortages. The camp’s prescribing psychiatrist, Dr. James. H. White, was arrested (and later convicted) several months after the accident for at least one account of oral sex with a boy that he had drugged.
And the counselors, the ones sent out that day to watch the boys, two of whom died, had almost no training. One had a previous felony conviction and marijuana in his bloodstream at the time of the accident.
“There are so many people still here that the book has brought back, but there are also so many wounds that have healed during the 22-year period,” said Mono County Supervisor Hap Hazard, who was one of the Sheriff’s deputies called out on numerous Camp O’Neal 911 calls.
“We were getting perhaps two to three calls a week out there and some were pretty serious. When it was finally burned to the ground and the clean desert was there again, I thought maybe it was laid to rest. But this book, incredible as it is, is still hard to read.”
Local retired Inyo National Forest Service employee Fred Richter was Cutter’s boss that winter. In fact, he helped get the Cutters the Convict cabin, when the family’s double-wide mobile home was late in being delivered to the Forest Service compound in Mammoth Lakes. He was also Cutter’s friend.
“For 14 years, I never told anyone that I felt responsible for his death,” Richter said this week. “If he wasn’t in that cabin, he wouldn’t have died. I just held it in. I knew it was irrational, but I still felt it. Then, one day, I was online and I Googled Clay’s name and contacted his aunt and uncle and sent them the kind of email that makes you shudder, telling them everything. They got back to me and then Terry got back to me and she said, ‘That’s irrational, you helped us, it’s ok,’ and finally, I was able to move on. But I don’t know if I will read the book. I don’t know if I can.”
“I’m normally a brutally honest dude,” said Mono County Paramedic Chris Baitx, one of the rescuers that day, a man who spent far too much time underwater himself before he was rescued on the edge of hypothermia.
“I say what I think. But I have to admit, I don’t like going there. I don’t know if I’ll ever read it.”
But you should.
Richard Mallard, the author or Convict Lake A True Account of the Convict Lake Rescue, will be at the Booky Joint on the twenty-second anniversary of the Convict Lake drownings that killed seven people this Sunday, Feb. 19, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. to sign his book. For more information, call (760) 934-5023 or go to www.convictlakebook.com.