David Dagan Botts

 

My son, David Dagon (Dag) Botts, 14, drowned in the Jed Smith River outside of Crescent City, CA, on June 3, 2005, during a family picnic at Craig’s Beach.  He died with the “help” of James Steele, our 17-yr-old daughter’s new boyfriend.

This was the second time we’d met James.  At our daughter’s request, we had invited him to dinner one evening, and he was friendly and pleasant. He turned up on our doorstep on June 3rd, 2005. Prior to leaving for the family picnic, he told my husband, Daniel Simons, (Dag’s stepdad, who raised him from the age of 2), that he was on probation for beating another teen with a metal chair because he thought he was a “snitch.”  He commented that he hated “snitches.” Daniel found that so disturbing that he did not want James to accompany us on our picnic, but our daughter refused to go unless James did also. We stopped by James’s house to drop him and his bike off. We later discovered that he used that opportunity to pick up a stash of marijuana from his older brother, which he secretly smoked in the bushes while we were at the river.

When my husband and I realized that our son Dag was caught in the rapids, we swam out to rescue him.  Daniel and I are both certified swift water rescue technicians and emergency medical technicians and have been involved in many river rescues. Daniel got stuck in the middle of the river, after pushing Dag out of the current and eddy fence.  Then I took over and got Dag into a shallow and calm area.

James Steele watched our rescue efforts from the safety of shore, along with our two younger sons, Jed, 7, and Cael, 5.  Once I got Dag within a few feet of shore, James entered the water, which was mid-way up to his thighs. I was exhausted and grateful that he was coming to support Dag as he walked those few final feet.  However, instead of doing that, my husband and sons watched James grab Dag under the armpits and lunge back toward the middle of the river.

Daniel, Jed, and Cael all screamed and begged James to ”Stop!” While our family watched in impotent horror, Dag struck out at James, struggling to get free.  But Dag, exhausted and hypothermic, was no match for James.  James towed Dag 30 feet from shore and abandoned him.  (This shows the river at the site where Dag drowned.  The points are enumerated as follows: 1 – Where Dag got in trouble and was caught on the eddy fence; 2—Place where I towed Dag.  The water here is shallow and calm.  I bumped my head on the rock sticking out of the water, which is how I know where we were.  This is where James Steele first grabbed Dag; 3—where James dragged Dag instead of walking him to shore.)

Our son drowned within moments. We had never before seen anyone sabotage a river rescue effort. To do so is unthinkable.

Before we even found Dag‘s body, James walked down the river to where our daughter was cooling cans of soda in the water and told her Dag had drowned. After we located Dag, his stepdad and sister tried to swim out and reach him, but James refused to try. He sat watching their struggles from a rock.

National Park Ranger Paul Tibbets was first at the scene. While he and Daniel attempted CPR, Daniel made specific statements to Ranger Tibbets that James Steele had purposely harmed Dag.  Those statements are not on record.

Officer Tim Wiley, with the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Department, interviewed me in the parking lot while my three surviving children and James sat in our car.  I was half drowned myself, vomiting up river water, and frantic to follow the ambulance to the hospital.  He omitted from his report my statements about James pulling Dag back into the river.  That interview with me – which was inaccurately reported -- constituted the entire “investigation.”  None of the other four eye-witnesses were questioned. 

The following day, James’s mother, Rhonda Steele – whom I had never met or previously spoken to -- phoned to tell me she had made an appointment for us at Del Norte County Mental Health Department with a “great counselor.”  She indicated he had helped James, who she said was bi-polar and had hyperactivity attention deficit disorder, get off his medications.  That counselor adamantly advised us not to hold anyone to blame for Dag’s death.  He told us blaming James would “tear up” our family. He also told us he would contact law enforcement on our behalf, but did not. If he did, indeed, take James off his medications, his concern about our implicating James is understandable.

 

Rhonda told me she knew how I felt because a foster child in her care had died in an “accident” several years before. She did not say whether James was present at the time. But she did confirm that James was a truant from McCarthy School and on probation the day of Dag’s death.  McCarthy takes only students who have been involved with the courts and recommended by the probation department.  Despite his being on probation, a week or so after Dag’s death, Rhonda sent James out of state, which made him unavailable for questioning.

Weeks passed, and we kept wondering why our family had not been contacted by anyone from the Sheriff's Department for follow-up questions. While we waited for word that James was in custody, Sheriff/Coroner Dean Wilson determined the cause of Dag’s death was “accidental drowning.”  It wasn’t until July that Dag’s sister told us, “You might as well quit waiting for the sheriff to contact you, because James’s mom works for the DA in the Victim Witness Division.”  Our daughter also admitted to us that James had a possible motive for harming Dag; he thought he had "snitched" to us about our daughter skipping school to be with James, drinking alcohol, and using drugs. In truth, Dag hadn't told us about James's involvement. He just told us our daughter was missing a lot of school, so we put her in home schooling, which meant that she no longer could have regular contact with James.  James had said he hated snitches, and Dag, in this case, was a “snitch.”

In August, we filed complaints with the California Department of Justice against the Del Norte County Sheriff's Department about the inaccurate report by Officer Tim Wiley; the lack of any investigation into our son's death; and what appeared to be a conflict of interest because James's mom worked at the DA's Office.

Deputy Attorney General Jonathon Raven told us to go back to the Sheriff's Department and ask them to conduct an investigation.

We did as instructed. Sergeant Bill Steven was assigned to the case. He repeatedly misquoted us in his reports.  He never spoke to our two sons, who were eyewitnesses to everything. It took him several months to locate James Steele to speak with him. James said he was a "novice" swimmer and at the time he and Dag were near each other the water was over his head.  That statement is ridiculous.  I had already pulled Dag into thigh-deep water, and James didn’t have to swim, only walk Dag to shore. 

Sgt. Steven spoke with our daughter – the only member of our family who was not an eye witness, and was still enraptured by James Steele -- and reported her suppositions as if she had witnessed the drowning.  She could only repeat what James told her – that he had attempted to save Dag.  (She has since changed her opinion and believes that James is responsible for Dag’s death.)   Based on that interview with a non-witness, Sheriff Dean Wilson told us, “I find that the second investigation involving your son’s death and your accusations that James Steele was a contributing factor to his death is unfounded.”

We contacted the Attorney General again. Mr. Raven said we needed to ask the DA to intervene. We did, in writing, by phone, and in person. The DA would not respond to our calls or letters and refused to make an appointment for us to speak with anyone at the DA's Office.

Mr. Raven then said we needed to file complaints with the Grand Jury. We filed two complaints, with no response. Finally we sent a letter by certified mail. They refused delivery of that envelope and it was returned to us.

We tried to contact the Board of Supervisors by letter and phone. They ignored us.

We tried to contact Governor Schwarzenegger. His office told us the Attorney General’s Office was the only agency that had jurisdiction over such matters.

We contacted the Attorney General’s Office again.  They again told us there was no way they could help us, and the situation must be handled by local agencies.

Having been denied reasonable law and justice by local authorities, refused assistance by state and federal agencies and officials charged with holding local government accountable, our family is reaching out to the media.  It is our hope that no more children die, and no more killers will walk free, because of this outrageous situation.

 

Susan Botts (Dag’s mother)

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Update 2009:

After almost two years we finally have a response from the county Grand Jury.  Our complaint was that Dag's death was wrongly determined to be an accident.

The Grand Jury's response:  They won't consider our complaint because the sheriff determined it was an accident.