Mom files claims in Tuolumne drowning

The mother of a 12-year-old boy who drowned in March in the Tuolumne River has filed claims for damages against Modesto, Stanislaus County and a joint-powers authority that manages the Tuolumne River Regional Park.

Debra Coito of Modesto contends the government agencies negligently maintained the dilapidated Dennett Dam, which contributed to Jeremy Wilson's drowning.

The agencies have about a month to consider her claim. If they reject it, Coito will be free to sue them.

"It just didn't need to happen," said Coito's attorney, Joshua Markowitz of Redwood City.

Jeremy was rafting on the river March 9 when he got caught in a current and became frightened about falling over the lip of the dam, which was built in 1933 and condemned by the state in 1947.

Jeremy jumped off his raft to swim away, but the current carried him over the dam and trapped him under debris, according to a Stanislaus County coroner's report.

The dam had a 2-foot drop into the most rapid water in the area.

Markowitz said the dam was a known danger for swimmers. In September 2006, Elmon Cooper, 8, drowned when he slipped off the lip of the structure.

"For one kid to drown and not cause anything to change -- it's distressing," Markowitz said. "We expect our public entities to keep their properties in a safe condition."

Swimming in the river is illegal in Modesto, according to the city's municipal code.

But that doesn't stop people from jumping in, Markowitz said. He called the dam an "attractive nuisance."

Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy Royjindar Singh said it isn't illegal to swim elsewhere on the Tuolumne, but people are advised that they can "enjoy the river at your own risk."

Plans to remove the dam, which was built to encourage recreation, have come and gone over the years. The Modesto City Council in June set aside $300,000 to begin studies that could lead to the dam's demolition.

Coito's claims do not specify how much money she is seeking, only that it's for more than $10,000.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.