A man who sued the Haines Borough over his son’s drowning at Port Chilkoot Dock beach said this week he brought the suit because of concerns about the police investigation of the death and indifference from borough officials.
“That would have saved his life if they had just put a sign up. To this day, there isn’t a sign there. That’s how much they respect my son,” said Larry Williamson. “This is our last resort for any kind of attention from the borough. We never hired a lawyer in our lives. We’re not those kinds of people. This lawsuit should have never happened. All we wanted is to get some answers and to have the borough make changes so someone else’s life isn’t ruined, like ours.”
Specifically, Haines Police never explained to him why his son – who disliked swimming – tried to swim from the beach to the dock’s lightering float on May 29, 2010, a sunny, Saturday afternoon. Andrew Williamson, 14, was swimming with two other youths at the time, including one who made it to the float. After Williamson and another youth turned back, Williamson went under.
Williamson said his family received only an initial, two-page police incident report by former officer Kevin Kennedy, mailed to his family in December 2010.
Williamson said he also was concerned that changes weren’t made to signage or through other means to make the lightering float off limits to youths. After the accident, the borough installed life rings along the dock and, at least for a time, posted the lightering float as off limits.
Williamson filed suit May 23, 2012, seeking more than $1 million and charging the borough with gross negligence. Williamson and wife Chetra moved to Florida after the accident. He was in town this week as attorneys took depositions from residents involved in the matter.
“We don’t want to hurt the town or belittle anybody. We just want people to know how we were dealt with,” Williamson said.
Williamson said that in the weeks after the accident, he raised questions about the death. This week he provided an Aug. 16, 2010 letter he wrote to then-Mayor Jan Hill and borough assembly members, voicing those concerns.
“My wife and I are grieved by the apparent unwillingness of the borough assembly persons, staff and officials to address our questions and issues about (the lightering float). Despite our efforts since last May, there continue to be basic unanswered questions that should have been asked of the boys swimming with Andrew and some of the fifty or so people on the beach at the time,” Williamson wrote in a letter sent certified mail.
“There is no way we have any reasonable chance of closure of Andrew’s death with the continuing silence of the borough,” Williamson wrote.
“Not one of them even gave us the courtesy of a phone call,” Williamson said this week. “Not even one. You’d think one would have the decency to say, ‘We’ll get to the bottom of this.’ We were completely stonewalled. Ignored.”
Williamson also wrote to Mayor Stephanie Scott in April 2012. Scott said this week she sent Williamson a note of condolence, without engaging him further, as he was already threatening a suit at that time. Williamson said he decided to sue only after his attorney visited here last May.
After sending the August 2010 letter, borough assembly members turned a cold shoulder to him, Williamson said this week. “They didn’t want to talk to me about it. I thought, ‘This is not right. You can’t treat people this way.’ It was an ongoing nightmare. We were so disrespected and blown off by the police. We couldn’t believe it. We were in shock.”
Williamson said he heard rumors, including that someone was throwing youths’ hats in the water, forcing them to swim to retrieve them. He said he had several phone conversations with police chief Gary Lowe, who came to Williamson’s house for a discussion in October. But at the meeting, Lowe seemed more interested in discussing Williamson’s mental condition than the facts of the case, Williamson said.
“(Lowe) asked me if I had reason to believe it was something other than an accident. Sure it was an accident. A car crash is an accident, but it occurs for a reason,” Williamson said this week. He said he hadn’t attempted to get more details on what happened from the other youths involved because that would have been inappropriate, as it’s the role of police.
Earnest this week declined to say whether borough officials had been advised by attorneys or others to not speak with Williamson following the accident. He said the municipality is improving how it responds to citizen concerns.
Following a recent swimming fatality at Auke Lake in Juneau, police conducted a broad investigation, resulting in new rules for users. Something akin to that should have happened here, Williamson said.
He said he was seeking an out-of-court settlement. This week’s proceedings were helpful to him, Williamson said. “We wanted information to get closure. We’ve gotten some of that.”