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Death probe goes on
Cousin recalls events before death at lake

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The investigation continues into the apparent drowning death Friday of a recent Martinsville High School graduate at Fairy Stone State Park, and anyone who has information is asked to contact the park, an official said.

“Nothing leads us to believe it is anything other than accidental drowning,” Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Public Relations Manager Gary Waugh said Monday of the death of Kerion Jykeem Witcher. Waugh said witnesses still were being interviewed and asked anyone who has information to call the park at (276) 930-2424.

Witcher, 18, of Martinsville, was found around 5 p.m. Friday in about 15 feet of water, authorities have said. Witcher’s body was recovered near the diving area. Rescue personnel attempted unsuccessfully to revive him, and he was taken to Pioneer Hospital in Stuart, where he was pronounced dead, according to a release and Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith.

Kenneth “K.J.” Lewis Jr., a cousin of Witcher, said he was swimming with Witcher and Lewis’ grandfather Albert Pritchett when the incident happened. When Witcher, who was in front, got within about 10 to 15 feet of the dock, the water was over his head, and he was not good at treading water in Lewis’ estimation, Lewis said.

“I think he panicked,” Lewis said. “I think he tried to touch his feet on the ground.”

Witcher went under the water, and Lewis thought his cousin probably was swimming underwater to the dock. But Witcher resurfaced with a panicked look on his face, “like, ‘Help me, help me,” Lewis said.

Lewis said he himself was holding onto a water rope with floaters and told Witcher to, “Grab the rope, dude.” Witcher was unable to, and Lewis extended his leg toward him to try to help him, Lewis said.

Witcher went down a second time, splashing, and did not resurface, Lewis said.

Lewis said he and Pritchett dove several times looking for Witcher. Lewis said three lifeguards searched for Witcher in the water, one for about 30 minutes, and the other two for several minutes. Other people who were there also helped search for Witcher, according to Lewis and his mother, Kim Witcher.

Lewis estimated Kerion Witcher was under water “a good 30-35 minutes” before being found and pulled ashore.

Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, officials have said.

Lewis, 16, said he and Witcher were like brothers. “He was one of the greatest people you’d ever meet, always had a smile on his face.”

“He kept me straight. He was the type of dude who gave you good advice. ... He didn’t drink alcohol. He didn’t smoke. He would get mad at (relatives) when they would drink or smoke,” Lewis said.

He also described Witcher as a motivator, a peacekeeper and said he loved to play sports.

Kim Witcher, Kerion Witcher’s aunt, said he “was a humble, wise, loving, caring person. I don’t have one bad thing to say about my nephew. He was almost a perfect kid.”

She said he loved sports and played football, baseball and wrestling.

“If you done something wrong, he would tell you, ‘Don’t do that,’” she said,

“He was a tremendous student,” she added.

Waugh said the water was 12-15 feet where the incident happened, that Witcher had not reached the platform and that it “was not a diving situation.”

He said a crisis team (which some call a trauma team) was scheduled to hold a meeting Monday night for lifeguards, park staff and potentially others who “went through the experience.”

An investigator from the Department of Conservation and Recreation was still interviewing witnesses Monday, he said.

As part of the investigation, officials will evaluate how procedures were followed and whether new procedures are needed, Waugh said.

Tracie Cooper, administrator of the state medical examiner’s district office in Roanoke, said Monday that a local medical examiner was scheduled to do the autopsy and Cooper had not yet seen the paperwork.

The beach area of the park, which was closed after the incident Friday, reopened Monday, according to a park staffer.

According to the his obituary, Kerion Witcher was the son of Yolander Witcher of Martinsville and Kerry Hodnett of Danville.

He was last employed at Rock Tenn in Ridgeway and was a member of the Watson Level Missionary Baptist Church in Chatham.

Funeral services will be conducted at 1 p.m. Thursday at Martinsville High School with visitation there one hour before the funeral.

Witcher’s father, Kerry Hodnett, said of him: “He was a great kid, humble, always respectful. He tried to put a smile on somebody’s face.... God blessed me with an almost perfect person (Kerion). The bond that me and him got in 18 years even death cannot break. He always listened, worked hard, took advice.”

He said that after the MHS graduation, Kerion wanted to go fishing with him and his cousin K.J. rather than partying, and so they went fishing. Hodnett said when he was 18, fishing would have been the last thing on his mind.


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