Is a serial killer behind a string of drownings at Austin’s Lady Bird Lake? Here’s what victims’ families have to say
Elsie John buried her 30-year-old son Jason in Austin, the city he breathed and loved and where he died on the night of 5 February. He is among four people who have been discovered drowned in Lady Bird Lake just this year — all of them male, young and said to have died by a “combination of alcohol and easy access” to the water.
“We only buried him in Austin because he loved Austin,” Ms John, who raised her son in New York, tells The Independent. “Jason only lived in Austin for two years and the reason why we left him there is because when he left the bar [on the night he died], he said, ‘Oh, I love Austin. I never want to leave Austin.’”
An alarming number of Lady Bird Lake drowning victims bear striking similarities: they were last seen leaving bars in the downtown area, were labelled missing for several days, and resulting search efforts met the same devastating end. Those similarities have sparked speculation about a potential serial killer in the area - a possibility that authorities have categorically refuted.
Much of the speculation is fueled by a lack of conclusive answers. Victims’ loved ones are left wondering what exactly happened during their last moments alive, as there is barely any physical and video surveillance near the lake, Mitchell Gutierrez tells The Independent.
Three years before Jason’s death, Mr Gutierrez’s little brother, 25-year-old Martin, was pulled from the lake. Mr Gutierrez has since become a loud advocate for more police presence and safety measures in the Lady Bird Lake area, while coming to terms with what he says is a lack of initiative by authorities to even explore the possibility of foul play or a link between any of the more than 18 bodies found since the year Martin died.
“You try to cope with the loss and push forward and then there’s another death and then another death,” Mr Gutierrez says. “It just rips off the band-aid of all the therapies I’ve gone to, all the things that I’ve worked on. It just keeps coming back. All of us who’ve gone through this deserve some form of justice.”
‘He was my best friend’
Martin Gutierrez moved to Austin in 2018. His brother, who had moved to the Texas capital from their hometown of Big Spring years before, was ecstatic to have him join in the fun of living in a city known for its vibrant music and food scene.
“He was my gym buddy,” Mr Gutierrez says of his late brother. “We went six days a week like clockwork. He was my best friend ... He was the happiest kid, such a good kid.”
The night Martin went missing, he had dinner with Mr Gutierrez before meeting friends at the Luster Pearl Bar. Martin was wearing his Patagonia jacket and blue jeans, the same clothing that would be featured in news reports about his disappearance and which he was wearing when he was found floating in the water just eight days after he was last seen.
An autopsy determined that Martin had drowned, but calls by his family for further investigation were ignored, Mr Gutierrez said. Martin also had a contusion in the back of his head and a toxicology report found alcohol but no drugs in his system.
“In this day and age, there are so many agents that just aren’t traceable on a basic screen,” Mr Gutierrez told The Independent, addressing speculation online that Lady Bird Lake drowning victims may have been drugged, which the Austin Police Department has denied.
Most concerning, Mr Gutierrez said, was Martin’s behaviour after he left a second bar, called Alibi, that night.
“He was like, frolicking,” Mr Gutierrez said. “It’s not his mannerisms at all, something was wrong. He made his way around towards the end of Rainy Street and the last bit of surveillance that we got and gave to the police, you see Martin walking in [the lake’s] direction and that’s the last we have of him.”
‘What happened to our son?’
Elsie John and her husband flew into Austin from New York City the day after her son went missing in February. But for the first 48 hours, she said, she was unable to get any help from law enforcement.
“We were not even able to see an officer. Some clerk at the front desk gave us a number,” Ms John said. “We called multiple times, left a message. Then we went to another police station. Nothing happened.”
Relatives and friends of Jason organised search parties and several groups, including the Indian Council Organization and members from the Marthoma Church, also reached out with resources. Police eventually conducted searches in the water that did not immediately yield any results, but Mr Gutierrez, who had gone through the same nightmare when his brother went missing, told the Johns that their son was probably in the lake.
On 13 February, eight days after Jason went missing, his remains were finally found in the water. Although his family says that an investigation into his death will conclude in May, preliminary findings by authorities labelled it an accidental death by drowning.
But Ms John, who visited Jason during Christmas last year and walked the trail along Lady Bird Lake to his apartment, says that her son knew the area like the back of his hand. She believes something else may have happened on the tragic night that her son died, but will likely never know the full picture due to the lack of surveillance, police presence or witnesses.
“Sometimes I still feel it’s a nightmare and the nightmare is over and he’s still working in Austin,” Ms John tells The Independent. “Some days, me and my husband both feel like he’s working in Austin and then you look at the picture in front of you and think, ‘Oh, he’s gone,’ and you know, ‘What happened to him?’”
“Every day we are asking ourselves this question. For the rest of our lives, we have to live with the misery that something happened to our son. We just have to live the rest of our life with this pain and this misery.”
‘Nothing out of the ordinary’
At least 18 people have drowned in Lady Bird Lake since 2018, according to a review of local coverage by The Independent.
While a few of the victims were swimmers who frequented the lake, where swimming is prohibited, the circumstances surrounding the bulk of the drownings were not immediately clear.
Jason’s marked the first Lady Bird Lake death of this year. Weeks later, 40-year-old Cliff Axtell was discovered in the lake in March.
Next came Jonathan Honey, a 33-year-old who was found dead on 1 April after last being seen alive at a food truck on Rainey Street, which is home to a string of popular bars near the water. The latest victim was 30-year-old John Christopher Hays-Clark, who was found on 15 April.
The Austin Police Department has maintained that all four men likely stumbled off the dark trail while intoxicated and couldn’t swim to shore. Officials say none of the victims showed any signs of trauma, although autopsy reports have not been made publicly available.
Speculation that the deaths could be linked by foul play has exploded in recent weeks through the Facebook group Lady Bird Lake Serial Killer/ Rainey St Killer, which has grown to more than 84,000 members since its launch in February.
Members of the group don’t subscribe to police denials of foul play.
“Although these cases are still under investigation and evidence is being analyzed, at this time, there is no evidence in any of these cases to support allegations of foul play,” the APD said. “While each incident has occurred at the lake, the circumstances, exact locations, and demographics surrounding these cases vary.
APD Statement on Lady Bird Lake Drownings pic.twitter.com/mpc3uuJJ1N
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) April 3, 2023
Reacting to comments by APD Chief Joseph Chacon that the drownings are tragic but “nothing out of the ordinary”, Ms John says that authorities’ seemingly nonchalant attitude is especially painful.
“For them, it’s just a number, it’s just a body. He was saying a lot of things that made sense but I really was very disappointed with the way he said that,” Ms John says. “My question to him is, ‘Do you just want to be an ordinary police chief, or do you want to be an extraordinary officer who can make a difference in the lives of Austin people?’”
The APD declined to address Mr Chacon’s comments when approached by The Independent, saying in a statement on 3 May: “We will not release any further information.”
But whether there is an unlikely chance that there is a killer on the loose or all the victims coincidentally met the same tragic and accidental death, their loved ones are sure of something: there is plenty more that can and must be done to avoid more deaths.
“I use my spiritual strength and remember verses from the Bible, you know, you try to go back to normal life,” Ms John tells The Independent. “And then the next week, you hear another person is found dead [in the lake] and then it’s like inflicting the wound over and you’re re-traumatised.”
Bonding over their personal tragedies and with the help of some organisations and city council member Zo Qadri, Ms John and Mr Gutierrez have advocated for several changes, including potentially having EMS and Park Rangers in the area from 6pm to midnight. Mr Gutierrez says Ms John has brought him and his wife on board to city council meetings, where they push for those safety measures together.
“We just want to support each other in every way possible,” Mr Gutierrez says. “Elsie texts me, she checks in on me and I check in on her. She’s the sweetest woman in the world and no mother should ever have to bury her kid.”
Their work has already seen some victories, such as small safety improvements like more lighting, temporary fencing, and Halo cameras that will be implemented later this year. The Trail Conservancy told KVUE in a statement that pedestrian poles, bollards, and dock lighting have been approved.
“I’ve been to two City Council meetings to speak with the mayor, all the city council members, the chief of police, just telling my story and what needed to be done and what could have been done four years ago when Martin died,” Mr Gutierrez said.
“Finally, for the first time, I feel like my voice is being heard and not only just mine, but Jason’s and other victims’ families.”