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Man drowns in underwater Chassahowitzka cave

Published Jul. 16, 2006

On the dark Saturday morning, four friends took turns putting on a single set of snorkeling gear and diving with a flashlight into Chassahowitzka River to explore underwater caves.

Jason Boyette was the last to go in. His friends waited for him to come up. But the 22-year-old never did.

They searched for 20 minutes but couldn't find him. At about 3:30 a.m., they called 911.

Sheriff's Office divers found the former Wesley Chapel High School football star's body stuck in an underwater cave at about 9 a.m.

"It was just a bunch of panic," said Michael Weimer, 25, one of the people who had been snorkeling with Boyette. "I would never want to see that happen ever again. We did our best to find him, but we just couldn't.

"There was no alcohol; there was nothing like that. It was just us going out and trying to have a good time."

Divers waited for daybreak to search the river due to safety concerns, a lack of lighting and because so much time had passed, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Ronda Hemminger Evan. Boyette's body was taken to the Medical Examiner's Office for tests, Hemminger Evan said.

By late morning, authorities had left the area near Chassahowitzka River Lodge where the accident took place.

Local residents said the drowning had been the talk of Chassahowitzka, a village just off U.S. 19 near Crystal River.

The river, flanked by tall trees, is filled with boaters on weekends. They often visit the underwater caves, but rarely when it is dark, said Chassahowitzka River Lodge owner Looty Milliman.

"In the daylight you can see the opening to a cave because the sun's hitting it," Milliman said. "I've never heard of anyone going down there so late at night, though."

Milliman said local boat ramps had been closed as the divers searched for Boyette's body. Normally, guides begin taking people on the river about 7 a.m., but police wouldn't let them until about 9:30 a.m., Milliman said.

Records show at least one other person has died while diving into caves near the spot where Boyette died. In 1989, 26-year-old David Moser died while diving in caves in a creek near the Chassahowitzka River.

At the time, authorities said it was the area's first cave-diving death in recent memory.

Boyette was a standout football and basketball player at Wesley Chapel High School, where he graduated in 2002 with plans to attend Hillsborough Community College.

He had recently been working to become a firefighter, Weimer said.

Football coach John Castelamare said he lost track of Boyette after graduation but remembered him Saturday as a popular and sociable student.

"He was a man about campus," Castelamare said. "Everyone knew Jason, he was friendly with everyone, he was high on the pedestal."

The 6-foot-1 Boyette played defensive end and tight end for the football team and was a power forward on the basketball squad.

"Jason was one of the most dedicated kids on the field," the coach said. "He set a pretty good example for a lot of kids, too.

"He was a good kid to joke around with. He was always a happy kid. He always worked hard for you. He was always, 'Yes sir, no sir.'

"When I think of that as a parent, I never want that to happen to children," Castelamare said. "This was a good kid."

Moises Mendoza can be reached at mmendoza@sptimes.com or 352-860-7337.