FGCU student who drowned told friends he could swim

Joel Johnson/photo submitted by Wes Kirk

Joel Johnson/photo submitted by Wes Kirk

Florida Gulf Coast University

10501 FGCU Blvd S., Fort Myers, FL

Video from NBC-2

Joel Johnson once tried to teach his friend and fellow Florida Gulf Coast University resident assistant, Tomas Baltazar, how to swim.

Baltazar soon realized Johnson himself couldn’t swim, let alone pass on the skill to a pupil.

The experience has left Baltazar questioning why Johnson, a 21-year-old English major from Lauderhill, went for a late-night swim Thursday morning in a campus lake, where he drowned surrounded by about 10 people.

“He’s not a good swimmer. He knows it,” Baltazar said. “Just to hear about what happened, I knew the individuals he was hanging around with last night weren’t good friends with him. I’m pretty sure they recently met him because if it was some of his friends that knew him really well, there was no possible way we would have even let him go toward the waterfront area.”

Lee County Sheriff’s Office investigators said Johnson drowned as he and several others tried to swim out to a water trampoline at about 1 a.m. on the campus's north end.

In a 911 call, two people on the scene told dispatchers that Johnson had said he could swim, but he went underwater before reaching the trampoline.

“I guess he said he could swim,” an unidentified male caller said. “Then he went out to the water trampoline and I guess he started grabbing someone and they couldn’t keep him up.”

A second caller said she was walking along the beach when people started screaming for help. She told a dispatcher that four people were trying to find Johnson underwater, but they couldn’t locate him in the dark and feared he was trapped underneath the trampoline.

Johnson’s body was recovered at 3:16 a.m. by members of the San Carlos Park Fire Department.

The trampoline was located about 50 feet from the shoreline, and the water was believed to be about 10 feet deep in the area. The man-made lake was a former rock mining pit, university spokeswoman Susan Evans said.

“It drops off in funny places and it can be deep in some places,” Evans said.

Toxicology reports were pending to determine whether alcohol was involved in Johnson’s death. Investigators didn’t believe foul play was involved, according to a Sheriff’s Office incident report.

Evans said about 10 people were at the beach after-hours, and about five of them started swimming to the trampoline — Johnson included.

Evans said the beach is open from noon to 5 p.m. during the summer semester. School officials closed the beach indefinitely on Thursday as they review access policies.

“In the past, there have been some situations where students were out there past operating hours,” Evans said. “There has been student discipline in the past, but I can’t speak to the kind of discipline because of student privacy laws. We’re not aware of anything that’s happened recently, and certainly there have been no tragedies like this.”

Johnson was enrolled in summer classes and had been at the university since 2008. He was a junior English major.

During the 2010-11 academic year, Johnson was a resident assistant at Building M in North Lake Village, located about a quarter-mile from where he drowned. Johnson had been staying in Building M this summer with Craig Nanakumo, who he’d known for two years.

Campus residents remembered Johnson on Thursday for his blend of competitiveness and compassion.

He was at home throwing around his 6-foot-3, 250-pound body on the basketball court and chasing down ballcarriers during flag football. Nanakumo said his desire to win became legendary among friends.

“He liked to win a lot,” Nanakumo said. “He was the one who yells more at his teammates than the other team.”

Amy Chilcutt, who supervised Johnson as a resident director at North Lake Village, often saw both sides of the junior. Johnson sometimes came to staff meetings still sweating from intramural games, but she most remembered his love of language and discussions about becoming a high school English teacher.

“My staff always referred to him as the big teddy bear,” Chilcutt said. “Everybody thinks he was this macho person, but he had a very sensitive side.”

Johnson was unsure about his future, but he had been working on finishing a movie script, an aspiration sparked by a class assignment to write a scene from a film.

“All I know was that it was a quirky type of comedy,” said Ali Runyan, a friend of Johnson’s from North Lake Village. “That was just his sense of humor.”

Johnson and Baltazar helped guide each other through supervising 47 students last year, bouncing stories and ideas off one another. Residents said Johnson quietly handled small issues but could lay down the law when needed.

“He wasn’t exactly shy coming in as an RA, but this helped him to kind of blossom here,” Baltazar said. “Both as a student and an RA, he was well-known around campus. When I found out about what happened, I didn’t believe it.”

Efforts to reach Johnson’s family were unsuccessful Thursday.

An on-campus memorial event for Johnson was being planned but final details hadn’t been set Thursday evening.

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