Central Valley

Old Modesto dam where boys drowned is lawsuit's focus

The attorney representing a woman whose son drowned in the Tuolumne River two years ago sought Tuesday to refocus attention on a hazardous, defunct dam that contributed to the boy's death.

"Everybody knows this has no purpose being here," attorney Joseph Carcione said, gesturing to the metal lip of Dennett Dam that juts above the river under the Ninth Street Bridge in Modesto.

Jeremy Wilson, 13, died there March 9, 2007, six months after 8-year-old Elmon Cooper drowned at the same spot.

Carcione represents Wilson's mother, Debra Coito, in a lawsuit against Ceres, Modesto, Stanislaus County, the state and a joint powers authority that manages Tuolumne River Regional Park.

She is seeking unspecified damages against the government agencies. She was expected to speak at a news conference Carcione held, but she did not attend.

The agencies deny they are responsible for Jeremy's death. Some say they have no jurisdiction over the dam, which was built in 1933 to create a lake for Modesto residents.

"The county to the best of our knowledge never had ownership or control of the dam or its remnants," Stanislaus County Counsel John Doering said.

Modesto Senior Deputy City Attorney Jim Wilson declined to comment. The city has hired an attorney to represent it.

Before the lawsuit was filed last year, Modesto officials said they were researching whether the dam was the state's responsibility instead of the city's.

Documents in the case were not available Tuesday because they were set aside for a hearing Thursday.

Modesto had earmarked $300,000 to remove the dam as recently as 2007 after Jeremy's death, but pulled the money because of citywide budget cuts.

The foundation of Dennett Dam extends into the Tuolumne River upstream of the Ninth Street Bridge. The state condemned Dennett Dam in 1947. The city and other agencies have tried to tear it down in fits and starts since then.

The structure is a low-head dam, called "the most dangerous type of dam" by the California Department of Boating and Waterways because of its deceptively gentle appearance.

"It looks like a pool. It was meant to be a pool," Carcione said.

Water glides over a break in the dam and churns underneath, creating the current that contributed to Jeremy's death when he slid over the top in a raft.

Carcione has collected decades of documents describing attempts to demolish or repair the dam, including complaints from the Sierra Club in 1978 that centered on the obstacle it presented for migrating salmon.

"It blocks salmon. It kills kids and everybody knows it," Carcione said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.