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Gaston man cited for posting warning signs at Hagg Lake

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: NANCY TOWNSLEY - Michael Medill of Gaston pauses near a memorial to four members of a Hillsboro family who drowned at Hagg Lake last month. He erected unauthorized warning signs at the Sain Creek Picnic Area Saturday and was cited for criminal mischief.After bolting several unauthorized, homemade warning signs to trees at Hagg Lake's Sain Creek Picnic Area Saturday afternoon, Michael Medill paused near a memorial to four family members who drowned there two weeks ago.

"This just kills me," the Gaston resident said, gesturing toward four wooden crosses before removing his baseball cap and wiping tears from his eyes.

Medill, 66, made the placards — with messages in English and Spanish meant to warn of a dangerous dropoff in the serene-looking water — in his shop in Laurelwood. He said he wasn't going to wait for three agencies, each of which potentially could dictate whether signs are permanently placed, to sort things out.

"It's a hazard for people who aren't aware or who can't swim," said Medill, who grew up in Beaverton and moved to the Gaston area six years ago. "You wade out a couple of feet and it's 20 feet down."

Jeremy Scholl, 3, Michael Garcia-Ixtacua, 13, Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua, 25, and Jova Ixtacua-Castano, 42, all of Hillsboro, perished in the water the week before Labor Day, a time of year when the channel formed by Sain Creek — hidden beneath the surface — is especially treacherous. Washington County Sheriff's Office investigators believe one member of the family stepped beyond the dropoff and began struggling in the water — and that other members tried to help.

All drowned Monday, Aug. 25. A memorial service for the family took place last Friday at St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Hillsboro.

A confusing matrix of agencies reponsible for operating and maintaining Hagg Lake and its host, Scoggins Valley Park, may have delayed the posting of warning signs two summers ago, when eight members of another family nearly drowned in the same area but were rescued.

The lake is managed by the Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, while the park is managed by Washington County. The federal Bureau of Reclamation owns both the park and the lake, and could have the final say about whether to designate safe swimming areas or erect warning signs.

Members of Safe Kids Washington County met in recent days with county parks officials to discuss the issue. No direct action had been taken by the weekend, however, possibly due to potential liability questions over signage at Sain Creek that might suggest other parts of the lake were safe for swimming.

In the wake of the late-August drownings, Washington County Commission Chairman Andy Duyck said commissioners likely would work toward a solution at upcoming meetings.

But pending action wasn't good enough for Medill, who said he hadn't been aware of the danger near Sain Creek until the Garcia-Ixtacua tragedy hit local news media. He was incensed after learning that even though the area features a kiosk offering loaner life jackets (no one in the family was wearing one), there were no signs identifying the potentially life-threatening conditions to unsuspecting families visiting the lake.

Since 1980, numerous people have drowned in the same spot. "I thought, 'There is something seriously wrong here,'" said Medill.

While preparing to erect six foam-board signs with the words "escondida" (hidden) and "peligrosa" (danger) spray-painted on them in red and black, Medill also called out to individuals preparing to go into the water.

"Do you have a life jacket?" he asked one youngster who was headed toward the lake. "Be careful out there."

He used an impact wrench to bolt the signs onto trees and at a covered pagoda near Sain Creek. Less than an hour later, county sheriff's deputies approached Medill and cited him for second-degree criminal mischief, a misdemeanor.

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