Parks and Wildlife Department keeping report on three Scouts’ deaths secret

By Jo Lee Ferguson
Longview News-Journal
Originally published Oct. 17, 2017

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wants to keep secret a report on the deaths this summer of three Boy Scouts who were electrocuted while sailboating on Lake O’ the Pines.

The News-Journal had requested a copy of the report once it was completed, but an attorney for the agency said Monday that Texas Parks and Wildlife “believes the requested records may be confidential” because the accident involved “two children.” One of the three boys was 17.

The accident occurred Aug. 5, when the mast of a sailboat struck a power line hanging over a portion of Lake O’ the Pines, killing Will Brannon, 17, and Heath Faucheux, 16.

A third Scout, Thomas Larry, 11, died later at LSU Medical Center in Shreveport. He has since been honored for being an organ donor. The boys had been at the lake with their Scout troop, Troop 620.

Laura Russell, an attorney with Parks & Wildlife, said her agency is seeking a ruling on releasing the report from the Texas Attorney General’s Office as required by law.

In her letter to the attorney general’s office she cites a section in the state’s family code as the reason the information shouldn’t be released. That section applies to “a report of alleged or suspected abuse or neglect” of a child.

Russell later said the request to withhold the report is not a statement about there being abuse or neglect in a “typical sense” in the accident. Rather, she said the attorney general’s office has in previous rulings said such a report could be confidential under the family code.

In the meantime, it’s not clear whether any action has been taken regarding the power line involved in the accident, or with power lines at other lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers controls Lake O’ the Pines.

A spokeswoman for the Corps directed questions about whether the power line had been raised or relocated to Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative, which owns the line involved the accident. General Manager Robert Walker did not return a phone call Monday afternoon.

“Since the incident in August, the Army Corps of Engineers has conducted a comprehensive assessment of the District-managed lakes that warrant further review to minimize potential hazards and determine if additional safety measures should be implemented,” Denisha Braxton, spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said in an email response to questions earlier this month. “We continue to work closely with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the lead agency in the investigation, and are awaiting the results of the ongoing investigation for future action.”

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the public has a right to basic information about accidents and crimes.

“Sometimes, when the public has this information we can prevent tragedies from happening in the future, the more we know about how something happened,” she said. “That said, we don’t know all the details of this investigation or why they’re feeling a need to withhold some information about these young people, and that’s why we will have to see what comes out of the attorney general’s office.”

Pamela Larry, the mother of Thomas Larry, said she was disappointed Texas Parks and Wildlife is declining to release the report.

It wasn’t known Monday if the boys’ parents would receive copies of the report.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to get it changed everywhere, not just here, everywhere,” she said of power lines over lakes. Parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children and power lines over lakes, she said. “You’re on the lake to have a good time, not babysit power lines.”

State Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, said there’s research to be done so legislation may be introduced in 2019 to require electric companies to move lines underground or increase their height over lakes.

Questions such as who would pay for that to happen would have to be answered, he said.

He said other lawmakers in this region were interested in working collaboratively on the issue as well.