Perilous pond

Sacramento’s official blog invited people to ‘enjoy the sights and sounds’ of a renovated McKinley Park pond. For a nearby resident, some of those sights have been grim.

In January, a body was found in the pond at McKinley Park. It was the second body found there since 2015.

In January, a body was found in the pond at McKinley Park. It was the second body found there since 2015.

Photo by Kate Gonzales

Judy McClaver walks to the East Sacramento park from her nearby home most days to pick up trash. On January 21, she noticed an odd mass floating in the park’s pond. After an unsuccessful search for park staff on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, she went home to get binoculars.

What she saw made the experience feel a bit like déjà vu. “It was kind of like the first time I found that body in the pond,” she said.

After finding two dead men in the same pond in less than four years, McClaver is again pushing for something to be done.

City Councilman Jeff Harris, who represents East Sacramento, and officials with the city’s Department of Youth, Parks & Community disagree that the open pond is hazardous. They say that the community was included in the renovation planning process and that the public didn’t want a fence. Harris added that the intoxicated state of the man found in the pond in 2015 played a greater role in his death than the lack of a barrier.

McClaver found the first body in October 2015 while on a boat borrowed from the parks department. The longtime East Sacramento resident used it to clean the pond’s small island, and paddled to what she thought was a pile of discarded clothes. Instead it was the body of 54-year-old Elliott Pratt, whose cause of death was drowning and intoxication from alcohol and drugs.

“I sent a letter to the city a couple weeks before that guy drowned telling them how unsafe this pond was,” she said.

Like McClaver, Councilman Harris has lived in the McKinley Park neighborhood he represents for about 40 years. He said the pond looks better than ever since its 2017 renovation.

“The pond has been in existence for decades without a fence,” Harris said.

He and city spokesperson Marycon Young said the renovation plans were reviewed by a Pond Advisory Committee, made up of eight residents from the Land Park and McKinley Park neighborhoods, including McClaver. Harris and Young both said the committee decided against fencing off the pond, in part because it wouldn’t be as nice to look at.

“The sentiment was then and I believe still is that the public did not favor a fence,” Harris said.

But others believe McClaver was sidelined.

Both Joanne Sales and Will Green attended a 2015 community meeting to support McClaver, who is known by some as “the pond lady” for her work tending to the pond and its wildlife.

Green said the parks department and Harris seemed biased against a fence, even a short one. He recalled them not wanting to entertain McClaver’s suggestion to extend the 3-foot-tall fence between the children’s playground and the pond all the way around the perimeter. Instead, they focused on a taller fence as the only option guaranteed to keep people out.

“She was trying to get her two cents in and was kind of not being addressed,” Green recalled. “The audience basically said, ‘Let Judy be heard.'”

Sales was one of those audience members.

“I said, ‘I came here to listen to Judy’s presentation,'” Sales remembered. “They wanted input from the people, but it seems they didn’t want it from Judy.”

The city estimated the cost of a 3-foot-high perimeter fence at about $90,000 and a 6-foot-high fence about $135,000.

No officials from the parks department were made available to comment. In an email, Young described safety updates made during the renovation. An existing 3-foot-high fence along the pond near the playground was extended 40 feet, which left more than half of the 1.28-acre pond still exposed. A built-in underwater ledge is now supposed to make it easier for anyone who falls in to get out. The renovation also included plant barriers to some of the steeper areas of the pond.

Harris was quick to point out the condition of Pratt, the man who died in McKinley Park in 2015. “His intoxication level was extremely high,” he said. “This was a person who was tremendously intoxicated.”

The man found more recently was Clarence Jefferies, 63. His cause of death is still undetermined.

“Would a fence have prevented these instances?” Harris asked. “I think not.”

He has represented District 3 since 2014, and said he hears from McClaver on numerous issues. “She emails my office very often about several subjects,” he said.

McClaver emailed the entire City Council after she found the body last month and said the response was lacking.

“Of [t]he two individuals in the pond, one was homeless and under the influence, the second is under investigation,” Harris wrote in his response to her.

“It seems that this neighborhood doesn’t look at the homeless as being human beings,” McClaver said, although she doesn’t believe Pratt was homeless. She’d met Pratt’s common-law wife, who said they lived together.

“If it had been a neighbor or a child who drowned, it would have been a totally different tone,” McClaver added.