Estherville woman drowns in East Lake Okoboji

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Emergency crews began a missing swimmer search at the Hattie Elston Park Access in the early morning hours Sunday morning. (Photo by Russ Mitchell)

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Henry-Olson Funeral Chapel for an Estherville woman who disappeared in the waters of East Lake Okoboji over the weekend.

The Dickinson County Sheriff's Office said 26-year-old Jennifer Johnson was one of eight passengers on a boat making a slow cruise back to shore. The Dickinson County Communications Center received a 911 call at about 1:52 a.m. Sunday after the boaters couldn't locate Johnson. Baloun said Johnson joined another boat occupant for a swim about 200 feet from shore.

The boat was driven by Tim Denver of Spirit Lake and owned by Josh Kirschbaum from Spirit Lake.

Jennifer Johnson

Winds were gusting at between 20-26 mph Sunday morning, according to Mark Petersen, Captain of the Arnolds Park/Okoboji Underwater Search and Rescue Team. Baloun said his office is still investigating whether alcohol played a factor in the drowning.

Petersen said night conditions generally make it difficult for emergency responders to get accurate information about lake locations. About 50 people were on hand to help with the search, according to the dive team captain.

"Things change at night," he said. "Unless you're an avid boater on the lake at night, things look totally different. You're not able to judge distances. That's one of the challenges. One of the challenges with any accident is: Nobody is really paying attention when things are going good. When things go bad, then you don't think about looking around to learn where you're at."

Crews conducting a shoreline search found Johnson's body at about 6:45 a.m. Sunday in an area west of Charlstrom Beach, on the northeast corner of East Lake Okoboji.

"We were just gearing up," Petersen said. "The sun was coming up and we were going to go into a full-blown daylight operation."

Sunday's drowning is the second water fatality of the year in the Iowa Great Lakes. On April 9, 85-year-old Frederick Boer of Sanborn fell from a West Okoboji Harbor dock and could not make it out of the water.

Johnson is survived by her parents Rick and Betsy Nelson. She had two sisters: Stephanie Johnson of Bloomington, Minn., and Samantha Johnson of Estherville.

The family says Johnson will be missed by a long list of loving friends. The Estherville-Lincoln Central graduate also loved being a hair stylist at BomBazi Salon in Arnolds Park.

Agencies involved in the search include the Dickinson County Sheriff's Office, Communications Center, and Emergency Management, the Arnolds Park/Okoboji Fire, Rescue & Dive Team and the Spirit Lake Fire Department -- Water Rescue Team.

Other assisting agencies include Iowa Department of Natural Resources, police departments from Arnolds Park, Okoboji and Milford and Lakes Regional Healthcare Ambulance.

"Everybody involved -- law enforcement, firemen, the dive teams and DNR folks -- we train to do this and I think we enjoy what we do, but we hate having to do it," Petersen said. "It's tough on everybody involved."

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