AlliedNews.com - Grove City, Pennsylvania

October 22, 2013

Cousins find body of man who drowned in Sandy Lake

Brother: Now healing can begin

By Felicia A. Petro/Senior Reporter

STONEBORO — The dedication of family and friends searching for a man presumed dead in the waters of Sandy Lake produced bittersweet results on Wednesday.

After a "tough" five-day search for Jason Mathieson of the lake near Stoneboro by loved ones, volunteers and officials, "It's a big sigh of relief, now that you have him," said Mikel Mathieson, of his brother being found Wednesday afternoon.

The 29-year-old Jason Mathieson was presumed to have drowned in early hours of Oct. 27, when his canoe capsized on Sandy Lake, which is a popular, private-swimming location in the summers.

The victims and his friends, Nicki Heister and Jason Greggs, both 30, were boating in the dark that morning when Jason Mathieson stood up to look for the shoreline and the boat flipped over. The friends swam to the shore, but Jason Mathieson never got out of the cold waters.

"Nicki said my brother told her he couldn't make it anymore, that he was just wore out. She said he was floating face down in the water when she went back to him, but he started taking her down with him," said Mikel Mathieson in reports by The Herald.

"It capsized about 4:20 (a.m.) and the two made it to shore about 5:20 (a.m.)," confirmed investigating Officer Chad Doyle, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, on Friday.

"They were pretty much together the whole time," he added.

On Wednesday, the body of Jason Mathieson was found by relatives. Brothers Corey and Ryan Guthrie were using underwater cameras when they spotted their cousin underwater "at the same time" just after 2 p.m., Mikel Mathieson said.

"He was found pretty much the exact area we were told he went down," Doyle noted, which was about 100 feet from shore and 20 feet underwater in front of the boat launch area at Sandy Lake.

Mike Mathieson then went with another cousin and a friend on a pontoon to see where his brother laid in the water, he said. Stoneboro funeral director Scott Black said "he had 'a funny feeling' that was him and he was right where we thought he was at," Mikel Mathieson quoted him.

With the cameras, "We had to be at the right angle," the brother said. "He was laying on his side."

About 1½ hours later, the body was recovered by Black, also a diver, with the aid of Jamestown Fire Department, which was called in by the funeral director to bring its rescue boat with "a floor that opens up" so loved ones wouldn't see his brother's body being pulled from the water, Mikel Mathieson said.

The Fish and Boat Commission "went in and was running a perimeter on a boat to keep people from getting close," Doyle added.

Four underwater cameras purchased by family and friends were out on the water that day, Mikel Mathieson said. "Black was in the water every day but one. The day he didn't dive, he said he would, he was just exhausted."

Speculations persisted that the accident occurred because the boaters were drinking, as they went boating after being at the OK Corral bar in Stoneboro, Doyle said.

However, breath tests of the friends found "some alcohol," he said, but it was under the legal limit.

Autopsy and toxicology tests are being performed on Jason Mathieson's body in Erie "to rule out foul play," Doyle added, which is standard procedure.

Blood alcohol level testing will also be a part of the investigation. "I know what was drank, but (BAC) is all under speculation," Doyle said.

"The canoe is locked up right now. I don't know the owner of canoe," he noted.

Drinking while boating is enforced the same as drinking while driving - It's allowed on most waterways unless blood alcohol goes over the legal limit, Doyle stated. Private owners can also prohibit alcohol on their waterways, like Sandy Lake's does.

Each year, there are about 10 to 12 drowning fatalities state-wide, the officer added.

"Sometimes we find them right away, sometimes it takes longer," he said. A body will often surface on its own after it has filled with gases from decomposure.

Jason Mathieson's body preserved well enough "so immediate family could say good-bye" at the scene, Doyle said.

"Not knowing is the hard part," Mikel Mathieson said. "Now we can start the healing process."

The outpouring from the community was "phenomenal," he added. "There isn't words to describe. There's nothing I can do in return for what they did for us. No way."

Published Oct. 5, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.