Neighbor of Whitmore Lake drowning victim James Everard recounts rescue effort, calls neighbor 'a great father'
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
On Sunday morning, Ellen Robbins and her boyfriend, Gary Chapput, watched from their home as 34-year-old James Everard and his 2-year-old daughter boarded a small fishing boat on Whitmore Lake.
The father and daughter regularly went out on the lake together or walked down by the water, Robbins said, and she and Chapput often watched them having fun.
On Sunday, James and his daughter departed from a small dock that he'd just finished building with his brother on Saturday. Chapput and Robbins went back inside as their neighbors headed toward the middle of Whitmore Lake.
But within minutes, something had gone wrong and the boat was spinning in circles with no one aboard. Immediately, Chapput sped out toward the scene in another neighbor’s boat, helping save the little girl’s life and attempting to save James Everard. The child survived and is in fair condition at the University of Michigan Hospital, while James Everard died in the accident, the cause of which remains a mystery to authorities.
The Everards had only lived in Whitmore Lake for six months before Sunday’s accident, but they already bonded with Chapput and Robbins, who live next door at the lake’s south end.
“Jim is the greatest husband, greatest father . . .,” Robbins said. “He is just such a great person, a great neighbor.”
She said his wife, Kristy Everard, is a schoolteacher and due to have a second child in September. Kristy Everard adored her husband and was looking forward to summer so the family could enjoy the water, Robbins said. Kristy Everard told her the family had strong ties where they used to live in Westland, but wanted to be on a lake.
During the winter months James Everard would ice fish, play with his daughter on the shore and sometimes take the boat out if the water wasn’t frozen, Robbins said.
“They were like two peas,” she said. “They would go down to the lake and just look, or go throw a pole in. She was daddy’s little girl. He was a great father, a great husband and a great guy.”
On Sunday, instead of watching the Everards like they often do, Chapput and Robbins went back inside their home pay some bills. About five minutes later, Kristy Everard was pounding on the back door, screaming about the boat.
Chapput looked out his window to see the boat empty and spinning circles in the middle of the lake.
“I knew something wasn’t going well then, so I grabbed a key for the boat and got out there,” he said.
Chapput approached the scene in a different neighbor’s pontoon boat within five minutes. There he found two people in a paddleboat had already pulled the child from the water. Chapput took her and sped towards a marina where rescue workers were gathering on the lake’s west shore.
Tom Perkins | For Ann Arbor.com
A boat with two paramedics met Chapput halfway, he said, and one boarded the pontoon and attended to the child. Once Chapput got to shore, he and two firefighters, headed back out to retrieve James Everard.
As the team approached the boat, they sighted Jim Everard’s body floating several feet below the surface and tried to reach him, but he sank from sight.
“We just couldn’t grab him. We lost him and couldn’t see him again,” Chapput said. “That was before divers got out there. Another foot up and we would have had him.”
Chapput threw an anchor with a life preserver tied to the rope to give the divers an idea of where the body sank.
“I keep replaying it, keep seeing it,” Chapput said. “I wish I knew what happened. That’s the main thing - what happened? What went wrong?”
“Something had to have happened to him because he would never, ever, ever let that baby go,” Robbins added.
A Livingston County dive team recovered James Everard in 10 to 12 feet of water approximately an hour and 15 minutes after the incident, according to a Green Oak Police Department press release. He was taken to the University of Michigan Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 2:30 p.m. James Everard had not been wearing a life jacket.
His daughter was wearing a life jacket and authorities believe she was in the water for 16 to 20 minutes. Robbins said the water was 41 degrees on Sunday.
Authorities said results of an autopsy, including a toxicology report, are pending, but police suspect no foul play.
Chapput said he had always gotten along well with his neighbor and called him a “good family man."
“He was a great father and he was always with that little girl,” Chapput said. “He had only had been here for a short time, but he was a good neighbor.”
Rick Carlington, 48, owns Rick’s Bait Shop on the west side of the lake near where rescue vehicles gathered. He said knew Everard because Everard came in throughout the winter to buy bait for ice fishing.
“He was a good family guy, a working family fella,” Carlington said.
No one witnessed the accident, and Carlington was among the first to notice it from the west shore, while Robbins and Chapput were the first alerted by Kristy Everard on the south shore. Carlington and Chapput said rescue efforts were hindered because so few boats were in the water.
Robbins called Chapput a hero for his efforts, but Chapput downplayed what he did.
“You see this happen on TV, but when it’s right next door to you it’s horrible,” he said.