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Quarry drowning victim was beloved King High football player, scholar

Football coach Rafael Tolentino hugs Pamela Newton, Zachary Newton’s mother, at the vigil Friday at King High School in Tampa. Tolentino said Zachary “changed my life for the better, forever.”
Football coach Rafael Tolentino hugs Pamela Newton, Zachary Newton’s mother, at the vigil Friday at King High School in Tampa. Tolentino said Zachary “changed my life for the better, forever.”
Published Jun. 6, 2017

TAMPA — Zachary Newton could bench press 350 pounds and squat 700. Listed as a "senior to watch" on the King High School football team, he also was an exceptionally strong swimmer.

That's why friends and family of the 18-year-old Tampa teen still can't believe he was the person pulled from the waters of an old Ocala-area lime rock quarry May 27 — a person described in Marion County Sheriff's Office reports as "tall with a muscular build."

"I don't feel like my brother is gone — he's here, he has to be here," said his oldest sister, Candice Lawrence, 34.

"I was in the hospital when my brother was born, I felt him when he came into this world, but I didn't feel him leave."

Until the medical examiner's office finishes a toxicology report, there is little investigators will say about how Newton drowned — just that the death was accidental and likely due to exhaustion from swimming in the 5-acre lake.

Newton was traveling with 10 other teens the day of his death but any information about the friends is kept secret under exemptions to the Florida public records law.

Property owner Glenn Knox, who transformed the land surrounding the quarry into the Hardrock Offroad Park, said the teens were turned away at the gate when they arrived that morning to go swimming.

They told him they had seen kids jumping from large rocks into the swampy waters on YouTube, Knox said. He told them swimming wasn't permitted, he said, so they parked about a mile away and hopped a barbed wire fence.

Since word about the quarry spread through news reports, Knox has been inundated with teens hoping to take a swim. The old mine is filled with stagnant, swampy runoff, drawing weeds, alligators — and trespassers dashing across his motocross track.

"Not paying to enter the park is the same as sneaking in a movie theater," he said. "It's stealing, but it can also get you killed."

Trespassing is out of character for Zachary, members of the Newton family said, but reports from his friends about what happened that morning didn't come as a surprise to them.

Newton's older brother Joshua Newton said the teens told investigators that Zachary wanted to make sure the murky water was safe before anyone else dived in. While swimming back to the shore, they reported, his legs became tangled in thick hydrilla plants that grew underwater.

His friends, who are 16 and 17, told the brother they went in to help but couldn't keep Newton's 200-pound body above the surface.

"If he hadn't gone in first, the rescue teams would have pulled 10 more bodies out," said Joshua Newton, a 25-year-old junior ROTC recruiter at King High. "But everything Zach did was to protect and encourage other people."

The impact Zachary Newton made in his short life became clear during a vigil Friday night at King High's football field. Family, friends and classmates released balloons into the sky and stood quietly for nearly four minutes.

A boy who's unable to speak because of disabilities wrote a message on his laptop to Joshua Newton saying Zachary was the only student who ever sat and ate lunch with him at school.

Zachary also befriended Mylo Hines, 17, at lunch. Hines wrote a song for Zachary when he learned of his friend's death and sang it through tears at Friday's vigil.

"Deep in my heart there's a hole, thinking of your beautiful soul," he sang. "Everywhere I look I see you. No one in this world could be you."

Newton was an honors student in Advanced Placement classes with a perfect attendance record and a number of student-of-the-month trophies. He loved quiz games, chess and caves, and dreamed of one day becoming an archeologist or robotics engineer and traveling the world.

He volunteered every weekend for six years at the Museum of Science and Industry and asked his parents to come to school with him just before he died. He needed their signatures to start a new student club to do service projects for the Temple Terrace Rotary Club.

He preferred Vans slip-on sneakers to Air Jordans, old jazz records to rap, and time spent with his parents and older siblings to parties.

"You couldn't put him in a box," said King High football coach Rafael Tolentino. "He would hang out with the geeks and the cool kids because he didn't care what other kids think because he wanted to enjoy his life."

To Newton, a lineman, it didn't matter that King's football team was 0-10 last season and hasn't won a district championship since 1982. He was beyond embarrassment, said Tolentino, who is finishing his first year coaching at King High.

Newton would remind teammates to take pride in statistics inside the classroom. Seven players signed academic college scholarships last year. He helped raise enough money to send every player on a college tour next season. He skipped family vacations and days spent with friends to attend all 54 team workouts scheduled over the past three months.

But Tolentino smiles at the notion Zachary would ever want to be a pro football player. He joined the team with a different goal in mind — to make a difference, to "better someone's day."

"I can honestly say he changed my life for the better, forever," Tolentino said. "Even knowing the indescribable pain I've felt these past few days, and the grief that still lies ahead, I would do it all over again to be able to experience the pure joy of knowing Zach."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com. Follow @ADawsonWrites