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Fishing trip on Hillsborough lake turns deadly when canoe tips over, drowning new dad

Eric Jenkins, 32, shown with his infant son, Terence, had a new hospital job. The father drowned Saturday.

WESLA RODGERS | Special to the Times

Eric Jenkins, 32, shown with his infant son, Terence, had a new hospital job. The father drowned Saturday.

TAMPA — Before he went onto Lake Ellen for a little fishing Saturday, things were looking up for Eric Jenkins.

He had just started a housekeeping job at University Community Hospital. He loved dancing his 7-week-old son, Terence, around the living room. And on shore, friends were setting up for a pizza party.

His fiancee, Wesla Rodgers, took the baby to the party early to see how the fishing was going. Looking onto the Carrollwood lake about 5:20 p.m., she saw Jenkins, 32, and a friend paddling a canoe they had borrowed toward shore.

Rodgers, 34, reached down for a camera. When she straightened up, she saw the canoe had tipped over and both men were in the water. Joe Louis Andrews Jr. was rescued. Jenkins drowned.

"He fought," Rodgers said Sunday. "He fought to stay up. He went under once. He was struggling and so was the other guy. He went under a second time. I didn't see him again.

"How helpless is that? To watch the love of your life slip away before you," she said. "It's a hard image to get out of your head."

From the lanai of his lakefront home, Joseph Fara Jr. looked out in time to see the two men splashing. They didn't look like the long-distance swimmers who sometimes train in the lake.

"It just didn't look right," he said. So Fara, 56, and his wife, Donna, put their 19-foot speedboat in the water.

By then, the canoe had sunk. Neither man had a life jacket, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Although Rodgers said Jenkins, a Navy veteran, was a good swimmer, he was wearing heavy work boots.

Andrews, 47, told deputies the men had been drinking before they went on the lake, sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said. Rodgers said if Jenkins had anything, it wasn't much. Andrews declined to comment Sunday.

Seeing her fiance struggle, Rodgers threw off her shoes, handed the baby to someone and rushed to the edge of the water. As another woman held her back, she screamed for Jenkins to keep going or to float on his back.

Meanwhile, Fara sped to the spot and pulled Andrews onto the dive platform of his boat.

"He says, 'Help me! Help me! Help me! I'm going under,' " Fara said.

From shore, Rodgers yelled for Fara to dive in because someone else was in the water. He did, but Jenkins had disappeared.

Much of Lake Ellen is 15 to 18 feet deep, Fara said, but Jenkins drowned in a spot deeper than that. Deputy Andrew Lynch, a member of the sheriff's dive team, found his body on the lake bottom about an hour after he disappeared.

Both Jenkins and Andrews lived at the Countrywood Apartments, between the 52-acre lake and N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood.

Jenkins grew up in Vineland, N.J., studied art in New York after leaving the Navy, where he was a quartermaster, and moved to Florida about three years ago.

He and Rodgers, who is from Port St. Lucie, moved to Tampa about 10 months ago.

Before going to work at the hospital, Jenkins had recorded and produced a hip-hop CD. But his passion was art, Rodgers said. He copyrighted his work under the name Diego Swift, made drawings for Lifespring Community Church, and created T-shirts celebrating his son's birth.

"It's tragic," neighbor Shaun Black said. "It's just crazy how things change in an instant."

Fishing trip on Hillsborough lake turns deadly when canoe tips over, drowning new dad 04/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 25, 2010 10:25pm]
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