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Missing teen's body found at Lake Sonoma

The body of a 14-year-old San Francisco boy missing in Lake Sonoma since Saturday was found Monday afternoon as his family maintained a third day of vigil at the lake resort where they had come for vacation and encountered tragedy.

The family and friends of the victim, Marquette Gross, had pledged to stay until the teen’s body was recovered and they could return home to mourn, said Janet Folk, general manager of the resort and marina.

They were present, supported by members of the local Red Cross, when an Alameda County dive team that had joined the search earlier in the day located Gross’ body in about 50 feet of water around 2:30 p.m., authorities said.

“They handled it very softly with them,” Folk said of the recovery crews. They “wear wings and halos for all of us,” she said, “because without our response team there would be a lot of people that have no closure in life.”

Folk said the boy’s parents were “mostly numb” in the days and hours during which they waited for news from the search, though they fell apart in grief from time to time.

Gross was a Visitacion Valley Middle School student who loved football, his family said

“I’m really taking it hard right now,” the boy’s father, Marvin Gross, said at one point Monday, about three hours before his son’s body was found. “I just talked to him, so it’s, like, crazy. I haven’t really been asleep in two days.”

His son, who could not swim, had been missing since shortly before 4 p.m. Saturday, when he and a younger boy some have described as a cousin slid off inflatable water toys on which they were being towed across a deep lake channel.

Neither was wearing a life jacket.

The survivor, a poor swimmer himself, later told a park ranger that Gross was panicked and terrified, and clung to the survivor’s neck, nearly dooming them both, said Mike Dillabough, chief of operations and readiness for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

When the pair separated, the younger boy, said to be 12 or 13, managed to get to shore, but Gross slipped under the water and disappeared, authorities said.

Folk said she has known the family for years, beginning with Gross’ stepfather, who started coming to the lake more than a decade ago to fish with buddies several times a year. More recently, Gross and his extended family had been visiting together.

They were among thousands of July Fourth holiday revelers who came to the lake over the weekend, packing the campsites, overflow parking area and boat ramp, lake officials said.

Reports indicate the two boys had been playing on inflatable water toys near the marina on the south end of the lake Saturday when they eventually drifted all the way to the opposite shore, roughly a quarter-mile away.

Apparently tired, they persuaded a 13-year-old boy on ?a personal watercraft to tow them back to the marina. But ?the 13-year-old, legally too young to ride alone, apparently was traveling too fast for the two boys to hang on. They both slid into the water, dropping the tow rope as they did, Supervising Park Ranger Joel Miller said.

State law requires operators of a watercraft to be at least ?16 years old, though children ages 12 to 15 may operate a two-person craft with adult supervision.

Gross and his companion were being towed across a channel up to 200 feet deep when they fell into the water about 200 to ?300 feet from the south shore, officials said.

Gross’ father said he understood the personal watercraft operator was wearing a life jacket, but in his panic headed to shore in search of help.

Both the Army Corps boat patrol and the Sonoma County sheriff’s marine unit were on the water and arrived shortly after Gross disappeared Saturday, but a search that continued into the night and over the following days failed to yield any sign of him until Monday.

Sheriff’s officials reportedly took the younger boy back out on the water on Monday to retrace the path he and Gross took and make sure searchers were looking in the right place as dive teams from the Sonoma, Contra Costa and Alameda County sheriff’s departments joined the effort, using sonar and a remote-operated vehicle to scout the deepest waters.

Dillabough said the last drowning in the lake was in 2009, when a man trying to rig a ski boat for water skiing fell off the back into the moving propellers. He was wearing a life jacket, Dillabough said.

But park rangers said they still are trying to figure out how to persuade boaters, especially teens and men, that it’s OK to wear personal flotation devices, which are offered for use free at the lake.

Even Navy SEALS wear them, Miller pointed out.

He and fellow ranger Lance Pool on Monday updated a ?sign near the park entry on Rockpile Road that keeps a tally of ?annual drownings at Lake Sonoma. It had stood at zero for six years.

“Don’t be next,” the sign now says.

Said Miller, “This is something we really have not wanted to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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