Hobart neighbors question why land issues weren’t addressed before 2 boys drowned
By Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org June 16, 2014 10:06PM
Updated: July 18, 2014 6:27AM
As workers began to empty a water-filled hole where two Gary boys drowned Saturday, neighbors were asking why the city didn’t do something about the site before now.
The Hobart Police Department said in a release Monday that a contractor had started to remove water from the hole, which is in the 4000 block of Missouri Street, that morning after police had finished taking pictures of the site.
Terrion Smith, 8, and his brother, Donel Smith, 9, who both lived nearby in the 3900 block of Louisiana Street, drowned in the pit Saturday night. Police Chief Richard Zormier, who is the only city official authorized to speak on the matter, said in the release that the investigation is still ongoing and that he would answer more questions once it is finished.
A neighbor, whose property abuts the site of the pit, said she saw crews out Monday morning working on the site but that other work has been going on for at least a year — digging the hole, tearing down trees and pushing dirt around for what she was told would eventually be a fishing pond.
The woman, who asked that only her first name Melissa be used, said the hole and construction work have concerned her for the last year. She said she went to the city in May to complain about it, including to Mayor Brian Snedecor’s office. She said she even brought pictures of the torn-down trees and the large pit, filled with water, to show to city employees.
She said she was angered when she heard Snedecor tell Chicago’s ABC News Sunday night that he would work to see what the city knew about the property. Snedecor’s office referred calls seeking comment Monday morning to the police department.
“It adds insult to injury,” she said, insisting the mayor should have already known.
Another neighbor, Ed Felty, whose property also abuts the land where the pit is, said he was concerned about the property last fall because he could tell construction work was going on but didn’t see any permits.
Felty, who worked in construction for more than 30 years, said he was also worried that the pit had sheer sides. Excavation pits are supposed to have slopes that allow someone to walk out in case they fall in, he said.
Felty said Hobart city employees told him the work was OK, however, and that it would eventually be a fishing pond.
“I was basically handed my hat and told to leave it alone,” he said.
It was unclear Monday who owns the land and what permits, if any, the property had for construction work. Hobart’s city code says people must have a permit from the city to excavate any dirt.
The code also says that, depending on the type of property and especially for large-scale excavations, a fence could be required.
Felty kept watching the work as it progressed, he said, and would see backhoes dig holes and then loaders take the sand that had been removed from the ground and haul it away. Crews kept digging, and the pit kept growing, he said.
“They’re mining the sand, that’s what’s going on here,” he said.
He added that he didn’t mind if the property’s owner was developing it but that he wanted to make sure all city codes were being followed and that the project had some kind of oversight.
Felty said the property has been a favorite haunt of local children, including his own, for decades and that they were used to playing and building forts back there.
“Their fantasies go wild,” he said. “They grow up and play back there.”
Changing the land so quickly and then expecting kids to stay away was unrealistic, he said.
“Kids are curious,” Felty said. “If there’s a big hole, they’re going to come and check it out.”
One local child is taking the loss especially hard. Melissa’s great niece, Mia, 9, who lives with her grandmother and Melissa, went to school with the boys and considered them her friends.
“I just really want to see them again,” Mia said as she cried on Melissa’s shoulder.
Mia said her friends and she would often talk about how they wanted to be famous and would play outside during the summer.
Melissa said the property did not have “No Trespassing” signs put up until Sunday morning.
Felty said there might have been a few near the road at some point before this past weekend but added that children would often come to the property from all sides.
Another neighbor, Dante Brown, said he had seen construction crews out during the spring but couldn’t remember if signs had been up before now.
“I can’t believe it,” he said of the deaths.
The release from the Hobart Police Department said police had to swim down into water depths “greater than 12 feet” Saturday night to get to the bodies. The boys were pronounced dead later that night at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Hobart.
In his release, Zormier confirmed that the site has had “some man-made alterations and earth moving” done to it, although the release did not specify what was done. It also did not identify the property owner.
“We will have two seasoned police investigators working the case to bring some closure,” Zormier said in the release. “There are a number of witnesses to interview and issues to investigate.”