By Kathi Bliss
Throughout the night on Saturday and into Sunday afternoon, emergency crews combed the San Marcos River in the Martindale area, searching for a missing Lake Jackson man.
It was the seventh such call responders have worked this summer.
Tychicus Dewayne “Wayne” Foston, 20, was by all accounts an extraordinary athlete, and an average young Texas man. According to his Facebook page, he seemed to enjoy hog hunting and had a special love for motorcycles.
Friends said Wayne was a standout athlete, who was good at every sport he tried to play, was also a strong swimmer.
MaxPreps.com sports website listed him as a 5’7”, 155-pound running back who, as a sophomore, averaged 61 yards per game for the Van Vleck High School Leopards.
His apparent health and athletic prowess add another layer of shock to the already tragic news of Foston’s drowning death on Saturday afternoon. Friends said they waited to report him missing, mostly because he was such a strong swimmer, they didn’t believe he could go missing in the water.
The scene has become all to common on the waters of the San Marcos River, where tubing outfitters have embraced the beautiful waters and the limitations of Caldwell County law enforcement, turning the Martindale area into Central Texas’ premiere party spot.
“What’s happening is that they’re coming over here to take advantage of the fact that we don’t have rules in place yet like they have on the Guadalupe and Comal Rivers,” Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law said. “And I don’t want to stop anyone from making money, and I don’t want to stop the kids from having fun, but even one death on that river is one death too many.”
It was unclear whether alcohol consumption played a part in Foston’s death on Saturday, and emergency staffers said that was a question best left until autopsy results were available. However, it is well known that alcohol consumption, especially by minors, is a common problem on the river.
“What is it going to take for those companies to at least start checking for underage drinking?” said Caldwell County Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey. “They take those kids out and drop them off, and then they walk away from any responsibility for them, and they should at least take the responsibility to make sure that they aren’t transporting under age minors with alcohol.”
Like Law, Ritchey said that even one death on the river was too many, but put much of the responsibility on the tubing outfitters.
“They assume no responsibility for these kids,” Ritchey said. “They have no lifeguards, no security. And they know this is happening. They know the underage drinking and the other illegal activities are happening.”
The “other illegal activities,” according to Law, include a variety of calls throughout the summer months, when he said his deputies have been called to river camps for everything from Public Intoxication to Aggravated Sexual Assault. Fights too numerous to mention have been reported at the camps, and San Marcos River property owners have made myriad complaints about theft, vandalism and other property crimes.
“The problem we have in law enforcement, is that we’re understaffed to handle the influx of 15,000-20,000 people that come into this county on the weekends,” Law said. “State standards recommend 2.3 officers per 1,000 people, and our census numbers say we have 38,600. Add another 20,000 to that and… you do the math.” Law said he has only three officers, two deputies and one sergeant, on patrol at any given time, and that his repeated requests to the Commissioners Court for additional staffing have gone unanswered.
“I keep getting told there’s no money in the budget, and what I really need is a unit, two two-man teams on the river for patrol and enforcement,” he said.
In the alternative to adding the staffing to the budget, Law said, he suggested the Commissioners allow him to use revenues generated from Federal Inmate Housing to start the unit.
“If I could wean the Court from using that money for other things, for the things they want instead of sometimes the things we need, then I would have the seed money to start a unit on the river, without putting that on the backs of the taxpayers,” Law said. “I’ve been saying since 2002 that we need to get more staff, so that we can give more service on that 28 linear miles of river, but that keeps falling on deaf ears.”
Ritchey hopes Foston’s death will help to open the ears, and the wallets, of the Commissioners Court and taxpayers.
“I can’t say, with regard to the county’s budget and things like that,” Ritchey said. “But I do know that the river is an enormous strain on our resources. This has become a pinch point for EMS.”
That “pinch point” he said, is a result of the fact that in general, the tubing outfitters do not have first aid staff on hand, and EMS receives emergency calls from everything from bumped heads and scraped knees to fainting and intoxication – in addition to being on hand to work missing persons calls.
“This weekend there were two intoxication calls at the same time, while we were performing the search,” Ritchey said. “That left only one ambulance left in the county for any other call. Our resources are being consumed [by the river traffic] at a high rate.”
It seems rare for the consumption of those resources to have results as tragic as the circumstances surrounding the death of Wayne Foston. The six prior “missing person” calls this summer, authorities said, have resulted in authorities discovering that the “victim” simply left their group, left the camp, or wandered off on to private property to call for a ride home. That fact could point to why Foston’s disappearance didn’t seem to be taken seriously by the tubing outfitter.
“They didn’t get into the water and help us with the search, and they didn’t seem to think it was any big deal,” Ritchey said. In fact, despite the fact that crews in boats were searching and dragging the river, the three outfitters on the San Marcos River continued business as usual on Sunday morning and afternoon, despite the fact that Foston’s body remained submerged until nearly 1:30 p.m.
“I don’t know if there’s any good answer,” Law said. “No amount of enforcement can make people make better decisions… but maybe if they know we’re watching, maybe if we have the tools we need to patrol like we need to, we can keep this from happening again.”