GLYNDON, Minn. - Prosecutors have decided not to file criminal charges in connection with a 9-year-old Moorhead girl’s drowning at a swimming hole packed with nearly 180 kids on a June day.
The prosecutors’ memo declining charges and a 60-page report on the drowning investigation were released by Clay County authorities Monday, Oct. 1, as a result of a public records request by The Forum.
The girl, Grace Bettie, drowned June 27 in a swimming area at Buffalo River State Park near Glyndon. She was there as part of the Moorhead Police Department’s Summer Youth Program.
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The youth program hosted the event at the park for 178 children and 37 adult mentors that day, according to the memo. Three lifeguards were on duty, and at least three other park employees were on hand when the drowning occurred, the memo said.
According to the investigation report, one lifeguard said park rangers made staff aware that a large group would be coming. That lifeguard said at the pool where she previously worked, she “had never seen a group as large as the one that arrived” at the park that day.
Clay County detectives interviewed park naturalist Paula Comeau, who said the scene around the swimming area was "chaotic at best, most of the day" and that more supervision should have been offered by chaperones.
Comeau gave a swimming safety presentation to the youth program participants after they arrived.
Of the nearly 180 children, Comeau said about 20, including Bettie, said they were not comfortable swimming in water over 8 feet deep. Comeau’s purpose for pointing that out, she said, was so adult supervisors would take note of which kids were not strong swimmers.
Detectives also interviewed the girl who was swimming with Bettie just before she was reported missing. In the interview, with her parents present, the now 11-year-old girl said during the safety presentation, Bettie did not raise her hand to indicate she couldn't swim in deep water.
She also said when she told a lifeguard that Bettie was under the water, the lifeguard kept asking questions about her friend's physical description, and that the questions “took a long time” before the lifeguard called for Bettie over a loudspeaker.
Detectives noted that the 11-year-old girl's parents seemed concerned there weren't enough lifeguards or mentors watching the kids that day.
The decision not to file criminal charges was made by the Otter Tail County Attorney’s Office, which was asked to review the case due to a potential conflict of interest in Clay County.
A staff member in the Clay County Attorney’s Office volunteered at the youth program event that day, and other staff believed it could be a conflict for the office to review the investigation report, authorities said.
In declining criminal charges, the Otter Tail County memo stated that while some witnesses said there was a lack of supervision that day, other witnesses said adult mentors “were monitoring the children from the water, as well as from picnic tables and the beach area.”
The memo said that before entering the water, the children were given information about safe swimming and were encouraged to swim with a “buddy.”
The memo stated that based on the circumstances, prosecutors do “not believe criminal charges are warranted,” nor is there an “identifiable individual that could be held responsible via criminal charges.”