STEPHEN, Minn. - Susan Kujava has been camping at Marshall County’s Florian Park for 22 years, but she teared up as she recounted the events of Saturday night -- a camp-wide search that lasted long into the night until, finally, ending with the worst news.
Five-year-old Dustino Casares was discovered drowned under a submerged dock in the park’s reservoir shortly after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, after having gone missing earlier that evening. Emergency officials responded to a 911 call just before 9 p.m. reporting the boy missing -- just an hour after he was last seen -- and Kujava recalled hours of searching with hundreds of fellow would-be rescuers, from fellow campers to the Marshall County Sheriff’s deputies.
A mother of three and a grandmother to five, Kujava said Monday that after the boy was found, police didn’t announce it -- and instead asked the crowd to step away from the beach. She started to realize then that something was wrong.
Earlier in the evening, she’d heard a man she believed to Dustino’s father calling for him to come home -- that it was time to eat supper. After the beach area had been cleared, she said, she heard a woman scream.
“I’m so sorry for their loss,” Kujava said, with tears in her eyes and voice that had begun to quiver.
Dustino’s maternal aunt, Jennifer Ortiz, explained that a group of extended family went to the park Saturday to enjoy the sunshine. A group of adults had gone on a kayak trip while another group stayed on shore with a gaggle of children. Only after the kayak trip returned did Dustino’s mother realize she couldn’t find him with any of the children across the campground.
Ortiz described her nephew as a happy, active boy who loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and would enter kindergarten; whenever he was driven somewhere, he would often ask for chocolate milk. His family nicknamed him “Neno,” because that’s how he used to say his own name.
“This past year is when a lot more words started coming together,” she said of her nephew. “It was so cute to hear him say things that he couldn’t say before. Very energetic kid, a very loving kid.”
Al Kuck, Florian Park’s manager, said the search effort included hundreds of members, from emergency authorities to campers to volunteers from the surrounding area. He estimated there were about 500 in all.
The group Dustino was with, Kuck said, had been enjoying themselves near a pavilion at the water’s edge, near a beach where the lifeguard finished duty at 7 p.m. The boy was eventually found underneath a dock that was several dozen yards away, submerged under high springtime water levels that covered both the dock and about 15 to 20 feet of beach, he said.
“It’s a sad moment,” Kuck said. “What do you say? I just wish it hadn’t happened.”
Dustino was the youngest of five children, with his four older siblings ranging from ages 7 to 13, Ortiz said. His family lives in Warren, where his mother Sonia stays at home and his father David commutes to Grand Forks and works as a car detailer, she said.
The family traces its roots back to San Antonio, Texas, where Ortiz said a funeral is planned. A GoFundMe site set up to help with expenses can be found at gofundme.com/2a8rzzw. A viewing in Warren is planned for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Warren Alvarado Oslo High School, 224 E. Bridge Ave.
“He didn’t talk much,” Ortiz said, “But he would always make you laugh.”