On a bright Saturday afternoon, three best-friends—non-swimmers—are believed to have ventured into a cool creek that dissects their community for refuge from triple-digit temperatures, but never made it out.
The youngest, Yamoude Dona, was seven, Christopher Toto Gabriel, 11, and Vladimir Petron Jacotin, 12, were cousins. Yamoude and Christopher went to the same church, the First Church of God in Federalsburg. Yamoude and Vladimir lived in the same apartment complex. The three boys played together every day, authorities said, often on the church basketball court.
Late in the afternoon of July 7, they were seen playing basketball. Then they were seen walking towards Marshyhope Creek, which is located a short distance from the church. No one ever saw them again. A few hours later, relatives grew concerned when they were unable to find the boys. By 1:30 a.m. on July 8, a family member of one of the boys called police and a search commenced. Patrol boats and search dogs were brought in. Police decided to dive the creek.
The community waited.
Then, as members gathered for Sunday services at the First Church of God, praying that the boys would be found safe, the first body was found “behind a group of homes in the 100 block of Old Denton Road,” police said. The second body was found a short distance away. The third boy’s body was pulled out of the creek.
“During our worship service, they started finding the kids and it just changed everything for us,” said the Rev. Peter Smith, pastor of First Church of God. “Sunday was especially hard. People were crying and are very sad right now.”
Police said they are conducting a full investigation but preliminary indications are that three boys drowned.
“All indications point to this being just a tragic swimming accident," said Capt. Jerry Kirkwood, adjutant to Maryland Natural Resources Police Superintendent Col. George Johnson IV. “Since there weren't any witnesses, and it was a group of boys that stayed together and played together, and all three of them died, we don't have anybody to give us a rundown of events.”
But loved ones wonder if foul play was involved. They question a scenario where the boys allegedly drowned, but two were found away from a calm creek.
“Up until now, we are still hoping that this is not a crime,” said Rev. Thomas Willeme, pastor of Federalsburg Church of the Nazerene, where Vladimir had been attending services with his family since Easter Sunday of this year. "He was a nice young man and never got in trouble with his parents or in school.”
The drownings rocked the close-knit community. Many of the residents are immigrants from Haiti. Yamoude and Vladimir lived with extended family. Their parents are still in Haiti. Relatives hope to bring them to Maryland for the funeral for the boys scheduled for the weekend.
Smith remembered Yamoude as “outgoing,” he said. “He had a smile that would light up a room,” he said. Christopher, he recalled, “was a good person and a great kid. He had a deep voice and when he spoke everyone was listening.”
According to details released by the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP), the youngsters were last seen on Old Denton Road, walking away from the church on Bloomingdale Avenue and toward Marshyhope Creek.
Rescuers said they found their clothes on the banks of the river. It could not be determined if relatives searched for the boys. The creek is five to 10 feet deep and 25 yards wide, Kirkwood said, adding that the body of water has little to no current that could have overwhelmed the boys.
“We may never know how exactly this transpired,” said Kirkwood.
He said the families are awaiting the results of autopsies that are to be conducted in Baltimore by the chief medical examiner’s office.
Meanwhile, the families mourn.
"This has really shocked them down to their core because it is three different family members in a small community,” Kirkwood said.