Crime - Sacto 911

Authorities: Boat that wrecked on Folsom Lake was going faster than 100 mph

Somewhere in 12,000-acre Folsom Lake lie the bodies of four men.

That’s about all authorities could say Monday about the whereabouts of two brothers and their two friends who were streaking across the reservoir at dramatic speeds when their boat capsized Saturday afternoon. Their inability to say more, even after a third day of scouring the lake with dive teams, a helicopter and rescue boats, comes down to a few key factors:

Based on witness accounts, authorities believe the men were bolting down the main body of Folsom Lake at speeds of more than 100 mph, said Richard Preston, superintendent of Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. Wind gusts reached 25 to 30 mph the day of the wreck. And no life jackets have turned up on the water’s surface.

At speeds of more than 100 mph, the men could have been thrown anywhere over a large portion of the lake, authorities said. The wind gusts and choppy water might have pulled them farther from the crash site. And if they were not wearing life jackets, they could be deep underwater.

“It’s a very large area,” said State Parks Sgt. Ryan Steele, who spent Monday on a search boat. Similar recovery operations at the lake have been much easier “because we knew exact locations where they went down.”

State parks officials identified the missing men as Toby Strauch, 54; his brother, James Strauch, 47; Jake Jacobs, 53; and Jon Smith, 48. All were residents of the Sacramento area. Authorities believe the men are dead, making the accident one of the worst in the lake’s 60-year history.

Immediate family members of the boaters declined to be interviewed Monday, asking for privacy while divers searched the lake for their remains.

At Toby Strauch’s home in Folsom, people comforted one another and awaited updates from authorities. No one answered the door at his brother’s home in the Foothill Farms area, where neighbors said they often saw James loading motorcycles into his van.

The Strauch brothers grew up in Sacramento in the south area and were “super close,” said Toby’s former wife, Dawn Conyers. Among their passions, she said, were fast boats, fast motorcycles, fishing and camping. Both were soft-spoken and mannerly, Conyers said.

“They dearly loved the outdoors,” she said, sitting outside her Carmichael home Monday. Her eyes welled as she looked at old photographs of camping trips, holidays and other social events she shared with her former husband and his family. She described the brothers as “beautiful, handsome men” who worked hard and had a special zest for life. “They loved having the wind in their hair.”

Toby Strauch owned a heating-and-air-conditioning company, and James was an auto mechanic, Conyers said. Although the couple divorced in 1989 and moved on with new relationships, “we have always been close to each other’s hearts,” she said. She said both men have adult children.

When Conyers learned on Saturday about a fatal crash of a speedboat in Folsom Lake, “my blood ran cold,” she said. “Something told me that it was the boys. They are always around water.”

On Saturday, they were in the water in a Skater 32 speedboat, traveling fast. At 100 mph, they would have easily eclipsed traditional ski boats, which are pushing limits at 40 mph.

Folsom Lake does not have a speed limit for boats in open water, Preston said. Authorities would not have ticketed the men simply for going fast “as long as they are operating safely.”

Preston could not offer specific safety advice for piloting a boat on Folsom Lake at speeds of 100 mph because, he said, “I’ve never been on a boat going that fast. And I don’t really want to.”

In general, Preston said, anyone piloting a speedboat on Folsom Lake should “know the equipment and know your capabilities” and always wear a life jacket.

Bob Leach, founder and head of Eliminator Custom Boats in Mira Loma and a former longtime president of the racing group Pacific Offshore, said the Skater is a well-regarded model that easily can reach speeds in excess of 100 or 120 mph.

“Typically a boat like that would handle whitecaps, depending on how big the waves were,” Leach said about the windy day on the lake. “But the guy probably shouldn’t have been driving that fast, under those conditions, with three of his buddies in the boat.”

A boater can run into serious trouble at high speeds if there is a mechanical problem such as a steering malfunction, or a failure in one of the twin engine drives, or if the boat hits bottom in shallow water, he said.

“Someone could have pulled out in front of them and they swerved to avoid them,” Leach said. “You could flip the boat at that speed. You must read the water way in front of your boat so that you have time to react, well in advance.”

Authorities have not released an official cause of the crash, which happened at 1:45 p.m. Saturday. Their efforts to find the men have taken priority.

Search conditions improved Monday as winds calmed, allowing teams from multiple agencies to methodically work along grids. After three days of searching the lake’s surface by helicopter, officials focused their attention on dives and special equipment that let them see underwater, Steele said. The areas they are searching range in depth from three to 45 feet. The search was thorough, but slow, making it difficult to scan a large area.

Teams will continue to search until the men are found or until El Dorado County coroner’s officials decide it’s time to stop, Preston said. That decision would come “if they felt like they had done an exhaustive search for the area.”

Conyers said Toby and James Strauch died pursuing a passion, and that makes it a little easier for her to mourn.

“I grieve for their mother,” Conyers said. “But if Toby and Jamie died together in the water, doing something they loved, then I am at peace with that. I’m glad that Toby is with his brother. They adored each other.”

“I hope that they find the bodies, because the family needs absolute peace and absolute closure.”

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