College-led group keeps watchful eye on park decades after drowning tragedies

Following a string of river drowning deaths in La Crosse going back 20 years, students now patrol Riverside Park to prevent more tragedies. Under Operation: River Watch, the volunteers watch out for anyone headed toward the Mississippi River, especially people who may be intoxicated.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a string of drowning deaths at Riverside Park. Some locals thought the deaths were the work of a serial killer.

“The city of La Crosse, the community, was like an alcoholic in denial. They refused to accept the fact that we had a problem,” said Police Chief Andrew Gavrilos, of the Campbell Police Department.

The University of Wisconsin La Crosse Student Senate created the program following the death of Lucas Homan during Oktoberfest. Gavrilos said during a commemorative event that a lot of people were dismissive of the project.

“For it to turn into what it has become, it’s really hard to put it to words how significant that is,” Gavrilos said.

During the academic year, at least two volunteers patrol the park on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in shifts from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

“I have seen people who thought the river was a parking lot,” said Daniel Potter, director of Operation: River Watch.

The volunteers encounter a lot of college students, but they also talk to other people who may have been drinking in the downtown area.

“They get disoriented and it’s easy to walk down that way because it slopes down from Third Avenue, from where all the bars are,” Potter said.

So far this spring term, the volunteers have talked to 35 people, and determined that nine of them were likely intoxicated.

“That brings the total encounters this academic school year thus far to 366, with 194 being intoxicated,” said Troy Englerth, student association president for Western Technical College.

Out of tragedy comes a positive solution to prevent more lives being lost.

“I would put Operation River Watch up there as one of our great [collaborations] and great examples of how people come together,” said Tim Kabat, mayor of La Crosse.

The Rotary Club expressed interest in helping the students with the river watch. Potter said that perhaps they could help during the summer months to enable the program to continue year-round.

College students and community members are invited to volunteer for the program. More information on the hours, location and availability for the shifts can be found here.