Deadly Auburn canal takes sixth victim in less than two years

Another homeless man mysteriously drowns in Wise Canal
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
-A +A
Auburn’s Wise Canal has turned killer again. This time it was a 50-year-old homeless man just three days out of the Placer County Jail and caught in the icy death grip of the urban waterway’s strong current late at night. But is the killer just the swift-flowing water? The death of Richard Marshall Hill early Nov. 23 – the sixth in the canal since January 2009 – has sent a new jolt of concern through some who know the canal. And while the Placer County Sheriff’s Office is treating the drowning as accidental, others are disturbed by a pattern of deaths. Morgan Cate, who lives near the canal and was walking by it today, said she continues to believe that a serial killer is responsible. Three of the six canal victims were homeless men, according to authorities. “Killing them is so wrong – they might have been pushed over the railing (at the New Airport Road bridge over the canal) or drugged,” Cate said. “It’s just not right. Just find them a shelter, instead.” Like the five other canal victims, there were no witnesses to when Hill entered the water in the dark of the early morning. Lt. Mark Reed said today that Hill’s death at this point is not being considered suspicious. Rescue effort fails The Sheriff’s Office has a witness who heard Hill yelling for help in the water and holding onto a pipe. The witness, a resident of a mobilehome park adjacent to the canal, tried to help by throwing a rope to him but he was unable to hold on, Reed said. At some point around 2 a.m., Hill started floating down the canal and was next spotted by paramedics, Reed said. By that time, he was floating facedown in the water. Emergency workers performed CPR on his lifeless body after it was pulled from the water but were unable to revive him. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. installed a 7-foot-high barbwire fence one one side of the canal this summer in an attempt to prevent further deaths. Grab cables were also strung at several areas along the waterway to allow people falling in to find their way out along the steep, sometimes slippery sides. Reed said the mobilehome park resident who tried to save Hill told investigators that the canal victim yelled out nothing about being pushed in or attacked. “There were no claims that anyone pushed him,” Reed said. Victim’s mother has questions Hill’s 76-year-old mother, Lillian, traveled the 200 miles from her home in Hollister to claim her son’s body and pay for a cremation. She visited the canal location near New Airport Road where authorities said Richard Hill may have entered the water. The elder Hill wondered aloud – with the fencing installed along the water side – how he could have entered. Reed said that investigators feel he may have climbed the fence. “I have read about all the deaths in this canal and it is terrible,” Hill’s mother said. “Richard is at peace and with God after living no kind of life. But I’m surprised PG&E hasn’t been sued over this. I don’t know. I just don’t know. It’s very sad.” The mother of four adults, Hill said her son, Richard, was the only one who ended up on the wrong side of the law. He first went to jail at 16, she said. “I’ve spent many many hours thinking about what happened,” Hill said. “Richard was the best-looking but he was the one who gave me the most heartache.” At the time of his death, Richard Hill was on parole and registered as a sex offender stemming from an attempted sexual assault. “He had a bad temper and when he drank, it was worse,” Hill said. “And he took it out on women.” Hill had worked on a fishing boat for several years in Alaska but his last years were spent mostly homeless and in and out of incarceration, his mother said. Hill had three children, including two living in Tennessee. Hill said she hadn’t seen her son in three years. “What amazes me is how many have died in the canal,” Hill said. “I don’t know what can be done.” The Journal has reported extensively over the past several months on the string of canal deaths and efforts by PG&E to prevent more. The Sheriff’s Office issued a report on the first five deaths stating that all the men were highly intoxicated or on drugs when they entered the water. The sixth death was not publicly disclosed until after the Journal was contacted by an anonymous source and then called the Sheriff’s Office. When contacted, Reed said he had not been alerted to the death.