Virginia Kohler and Aileen Osborne arrived at the party shortly before 8 p.m. to watch the sun sink behind the horizon. Fifty people had gathered at a private Euclid beach, most lounging about a pavilion nestled on a cliff above Lake Erie. After greeting a few pals, Osborne walked down to the shore with her two children and Kohler.
They spotted Carol Patch wading in waist-deep water, some 20 feet from land. Osborne waved to her friend and swapped hellos. Patch planned to water-ski and stood waiting for a powerboat that had looped out with another skier. A young girl played nearby, talking with her.
Minutes later, the boat curved back toward shore. Most eyes were fixed on the skier. But Kohler and Osborne saw the craft bearing down on Patch and the girl. Osborne remembers screaming as she began to run along the beach.
"He's going to hit 'em! He's going to hit 'em!"
The boat closed in. Osborne recalls Patch, a sturdy woman with thick shoulders, grabbing the girl and heaving her out of its path. Then Patch vanished underwater, her body raking along the hull toward the propeller. When she finally bobbed to the surface, she tried to stand. Her legs wilted.
"I need help," she rasped to the girl. "Go get help."
The gray water turned crimson, Patch's blood spreading like an oil spill. A man rushed in to pull her nearer to shore. A woman started giving mouth-to-mouth. But Kohler, the next person to reach Patch, realized she was gone. The prop had sliced deep into her torso. Each ripple of the tide carried away chunks of intestine and flesh.
Kohler had never met Patch. Now she bent down to close the dead woman's eyes. She then left with Osborne, who had hung back to shield her kids from the grisly scene. Scrambling up the cement stairs to the pavilion, Osborne fell again and again, scraping her knees raw. "I was like Jell-O. I could hardly breathe."
Patch's body, wrapped in a blanket, would lie on the beach for hours as investigators scoured the site on August 12, 2001. By the next day, the story of her heroism topped newscasts, as the media lionized Patch, 53, for saving the life of a girl she'd just met. Donations poured in from across the state to cover her funeral costs.
Officers arrested the boat driver, David Lowe, on multiple charges, including aggravated vehicular homicide and drunk driving. Three days after Patch's death, he shuffled into court in handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit. He was so widely assumed to be at fault that his not-guilty plea seemed a mere pretense to cutting a deal or a quick conviction. Even some of Patch's loved ones -- certain that he would serve years for what they regarded as an honest accident -- felt sorry for him.
Almost two years later, however, their pity has yielded to disbelief and bitterness as authorities bungle the case -- and Lowe defiantly touts his innocence.
A blunder by Cuyahoga County prosecutors will prevent them from using Lowe's urinalysis results at trial, scheduled to start next week. Sloppy police work already had jeopardized reports on his field sobriety tests and Breathalyzer; none will be presented in court. Patch's family and friends also say authorities have lagged in interviewing witnesses -- including Osborne and Kohler -- who could bolster the state's case.
Lowe, who considered Patch an acquaintance, stewed in jail for five months before he could post bond. He predicts he'll win his case for one reason: "It's all bullshit, that's all it is." His attitude -- and the possibility that he could avoid hard time -- infuriates both those whom Patch befriended in life and others whom she touched in death.
"She didn't die instantly," Kohler says. "The poor woman suffered, and she knew she was going to die. Somebody has to pay for that."
Carol Patch shared her younger brother's pale blue eyes, gap-toothed grin, and what Earl Patch calls "ratchet-jaw syndrome" -- a love of gab. Friends razzed her for her habit of leaving long-winded voice mails -- followed by even longer messages apologizing for yakking so much.
But there's another trait -- a tendency to cry easily -- that Earl feels he somehow inherited from his lone sibling. It's a trait revealed when he talks about her. A machinist by trade, he paws away tears with large, callused hands.
"I always knew I had an angel for a sister."
Earl wears a Pink Floyd T-shirt during interviews as a tribute to Carol, a huge fan of the band's psychedelic purr. His Cuyahoga Falls duplex, where the divorced father lives alone, holds other traces of his sister's life.
Van Gogh and Dali prints that once adorned her art-crammed house now hang on his walls. On a living-room table rests a photo album filled with pictures of her. In snapshots as a dark-haired toddler and a snow-blond teen, she flashes a lighthouse smile.
Despite the happy moments, Earl says family tensions -- he prefers to skip the details of their upbringing in Chardon -- led Carol to bolt from home for good in 1966, at age 18. She found freedom as a hippie, traversing the U.S. and Canada, attending the original Woodstock. She would settle down again in Cleveland, logging stints as a bartender and bank teller, but never surrendered her long locks, tie-dye fashions, and yen for live music.
From the Stones to ragtag bar bands, concerts offered a rare break from the grind of Patch's later years, when she worked as a landscaper and ran her own catering business. In summer, she'd rise at 6 to prune shrubs and mow lawns until early evening, before returning home to prepare food until 2 a.m. In winter, she served as a nanny for the families of lawyers and doctors in Shaker Heights.
All the while, say those who were closest to her, she sowed kindness like seeds of grass.
Unmarried and childless, Patch doted on her friends' kids, sending them Easter candy and birthday cards, or babysitting when their parents needed a night out. She knitted sweaters, cooked meals, and planted gardens for sick neighbors. She'd give her last buck to panhandlers and offer rides to the elderly or disabled.
Neither a permanent limp -- a car wreck left one leg shorter than the other -- nor severe arthritis clouded the mood of Sunshine, as her pal Gina Tatsumi called her. "It sounds like a cliché, but she just loved life so much."
Children from blocks around would flock to Patch's home in Collinwood when an ice-cream truck jingled past -- she'd buy each kid a treat. "You know, sometimes it's not easy in a neighborhood like Collinwood to find people who look after each other," says Liklakisha Hassan-Rowe, a young mother who lives next door to the redbrick house Patch rented. "But she was like that -- she treated everyone the same."
That she parted so charitably with her hard-earned dollar belied the money woes gnawing at her. An ex-boyfriend had maxed out her credit cards, putting her $20,000 in the hole. Yet only Earl and a few friends ever glimpsed her frayed spirit.
"Carol was killing herself trying to make ends meet," says longtime pal Nancy Langford. "But she didn't want people to worry about her."
So instead of moping, Patch reveled in cheap diversions -- like the annual lake party hosted by Paul Adams, owner of the Village Bar & Grille. They were both friends and partners: She tended to the petunias outside his Euclid pub; he paid her with free drinks and invitations to his beach bash.
On the day she died, Patch went home after work to shower and grab the alfredo dish she'd made for the party. She drove her pickup to the pavilion off Lake Shore Boulevard around 7 p.m., giddy at the chance to water-ski for the first time in years.
An hour later, she lay lifeless on the beach -- after one last good deed for a stranger. Michelle Trommetter hardly knew the woman who saved her daughter.
"She didn't have to do what she did. She gave herself."
Adams missed the accident. His eyes were locked on the shoreline as he let go of the ski rope behind David Lowe's 26-foot Sea Ray cruiser. He wanted to coast in as the boat swung by the beach.
Adams sank to a stop and tugged off his skis. Walking out of the water, he noticed a knot of people kneeling around someone on the sand. A woman hurried past him, her face ashen.
"Don't go down there!" she yelled.
"It's Carol, it's Carol. She's gone."
Adams froze. He had skied twice that evening. After his first turn, Patch intended to go. But as she slipped on a life jacket, three people waded out to talk to Lowe, who sat on the boat with his 11-year-old son. Worried that there might be too much weight on board for the boat to pull her, Patch told Adams to go again.
As it happened, the three people would return to shore before Lowe roared off with Adams in tow. Patch stayed in the water to watch him ski. About that time, Samantha Trommetter -- the 10-year-old daughter of Michelle, a barmaid at Adams's pub -- wandered out to talk to her. They were still chatting as the boat swept in to drop off Adams.
Now, as Adams peered across the beach, Samantha sobbed in her mother's arms. Sometime later, survivor's guilt hit.
"I should have been standing there in the water with Samantha," he says. "It's a simple twist of fate. Why Carol and not me?"
Euclid police wanted answers to more pragmatic questions. They were joined by investigators from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Awaiting them was a snarl of conflicting accounts that remains no less tangled as Lowe's trial looms.
Lowe insists he announced that people should stay out of the water while he pulled skiers. His attorneys say witnesses back him up. But others -- including Adams and Lisa Horgan, who attempted to revive Patch -- claim they heard him give no such warning.
Lowe also contends that everyone except Patch and Samantha remained on land as he curved past the beach. Horgan counters that she saw several adults and children in the lake -- a recollection seconded by Aileen Osborne and Virginia Kohler, who were walking along the shore.
"Nobody could believe how close the boat was coming in," Horgan says.
Similarly, Osborne, Kohler, and Adams assert that Lowe sat in his boat after running Patch over. Lowe's version: He killed the engine, dropped anchor, and hopped into the lake to push her body toward shore.
The clash of memories comes as no surprise, given the chaotic scene. What's more baffling: how authorities fumbled away crucial evidence of whether Lowe was drunk.
According to court files, Lowe told police he downed four beers at home over several hours, before driving his boat to the party around dusk. Though officers reported that he had bloodshot eyes and booze on his breath, he says, "I was saving my drinking for after the boating."
The cops subjected Lowe to two field sobriety tests. Yet public documents suggest they botched both by omitting portions of the test -- thereby handing Lowe's lawyers a club to pound away at the results.
Likewise, records indicate that after Lowe took a pair of Breathalyzer tests that produced inconclusive results, an investigator ripped up the printout -- an act caught on video. Prosecutors allege that Lowe -- who owns two DUI convictions (a third was overturned last year) -- knew how to thwart the test with short breaths. He replies that blowing hard causes him coughing fits. Either way, by tossing the readout, authorities mugged their own integrity.
By themselves, the lapses appeared a major boost to Lowe's defense -- until prosecutors upped the ineptitude.
Court records state that Lowe's urinalysis showed a blood-alcohol content of .14. But prosecutors believed that officers tainted the sample by failing to add a state-required preservative to it. At the county's request, a judge threw out the sample, along with the Breathalyzers and field sobriety tests.
Prosecutors presumably hoped the move would preempt an assault by Lowe's lawyers on investigators' gaffes. Instead, officials would end up sandblasting egg off their faces a few days later, after realizing that the state stopped requiring the additive two years ago. The sample, in fact, was perfectly fine. Assistant prosecutor David Zimmerman asked the court to reinstate it; the judge refused.
Perhaps out of embarrassment, authorities divulge little about the case. DNR officials referred questions to Zimmerman, who declined comment. Euclid Detective Michael Grida tries to downplay the miscues: "It's still a very strong case, we're very confident of that."
It should have been stronger, Patch's friends argue.
"How do you make mistakes like that?" asks Osborne, who'd known Carol for five years. "It's unbelievable."
Amid the procedural screw-ups, some also accuse authorities of moving with the speed of polar icecaps in hunting down witnesses.
Officials interviewed Osborne and Kohler for the first time in April -- 20 months after the accident. In fairness, both women left the beach before police arrived -- the cops had no idea they had been there. Then again, authorities have group photos taken that day, and they've had nearly two years to locate people.
Other sources familiar with the case say police have yet to contact another witness who reportedly saw the accident. They identify the man as one of the three people who visited Lowe's boat before Adams skied a second time, and say he later pulled Patch's body toward shore.
Asserting that the county has enough witnesses to make its case, Grida chalks up criticism of authorities to emotion -- a victim's loved ones always believe that more could be done. Patch's family and friends, however, suspect the investigation went slack once camera crews packed up. They speculate that if young Samantha had died that day -- or if Carol had been a Beachwood soccer mom -- the media spotlight would have burned hot on Prosecutor Bill Mason until the case closed and Lowe sat behind bars.
"We wouldn't be having this conversation," Gina Tatsumi says.
Adds Colleen O'Toole, the Patch family's attorney: "If it's in the media every day, it's going to draw more attention. Bill Mason is a prosecutor, but he's also a politician."
That reasoning elicits a sigh from Kenneth Bossin, one of Lowe's lawyers. "I don't know how much more pressure you could have from the prosecutor's office. They charged him with aggravated homicide."
Indeed, to hear Bossin's client tell it, he's as much a victim as Carol Patch.
David Lowe wants to talk.
"It's about time somebody put something true in the paper." He takes a swig of Bud Light. "I did all the procedures that you would do to ski people off the beach." Swig. "I didn't do anything wrong."
Still, Lowe admits, plenty reacted as if he did. A self-employed machinist, he literally lost 99 percent of his business -- plunging from 75 customers to one. People forget about a guy when he does five months in jail. Which leaves more time for barstool musing.
"I don't have any decent work anymore. Since the accident, I ain't got nothing going on. Sure, I spend a lot of time in the bar."
Or on the lake, when he can. He enjoys drinking there, too -- after he drops anchor for the night, he insists.
Lowe planned to sleep on his boat following the party on August 12, 2001. He puttered around his Euclid home most of that Sunday, repairing a trailer with help from his two sons. The trio drove down to the lake in the early evening, loading beer and other supplies onto his boat. Lowe bought the used craft some years ago, painting over its name -- Thriller -- but not bothering to rechristen it.
They arrived at the beach around 7 p.m., setting anchor in five feet of water and wading ashore. Lowe says he explained to the group that the boat's bow rises at slower speeds, partially obscuring his view. "I said, 'No swimming. Stay out of the water.' Carol was there. She was the one I was talking to."
Lowe's younger son, then 11, served as his spotter on the boat. He claims he ordered his older son, 14, to patrol the beach and wave him off if anyone entered the lake. Swooping in to drop Paul Adams, Lowe recalls that he could see 20 faces -- he uses the number precisely -- on shore. He says no one pointed, started to run, tried to scream.
"If they had, I'd have stopped in a heartbeat."
Lowe slowed the boat to about 14 mph. Adams let go. Then came "a real soft hit" from below. "My son and I looked at each other and said, 'What was that?'" It clicked a moment later: a person.
"I knew that's what it was. I just didn't know who."
He jerked the engine into neutral and walked to the back of the boat. In the wake's eddy, a body rose to the surface. "I about passed out. It felt like the top of my head was going to blow off."
Lowe maintains that he jumped in the water to try to help. He fell to his knees when he saw the gashes in Patch's chest. "I thought, 'Oh my God.' I couldn't stand up. I couldn't even yell at the people on the beach."
He stumbled to shore, one question swirling in his head: "How in the fuck?" He would have five months behind bars to think about it. A judge set his bond at $75,000, in part because he had a suspended driver's license for a DUI in Newton Falls earlier in 2001 (he'd refused to take a Breathalyzer). His bond fell to $10,000 in January 2002, after a judge tossed the DUI conviction, and he managed to pony up the money for his release.
Lowe, 50, boasts that he piloted his first boat at age five. As he sat in jail, mulling over the accident and his 45 years on the water, he acquitted himself of blame. "I had everything covered."
Patch, he's convinced, "made a bad decision."
"I think she wanted to swim underwater and come up by the boat and scare everyone, or something stupid like that. And she just went out too far."
Dressed in a green sweatshirt and jeans, Lowe remains in perpetual motion even while sitting. He yanks at his sleeves, pushes up his glasses, strokes at a graying beard. But the fidgeting ceases when he's asked if Patch's death troubles him.
"There's no one who wishes this didn't happen. I'm sorry this happened. Isn't everyone? It's a tragic accident."
Those who attended the party and saw the carnage portray the accident in similar terms -- with an important caveat. "Nobody believes it was intentional," says Jeff Anastasio, a friend of Patch's who attempted CPR on her. "But if he was drunk, he definitely screwed up."
Another witness, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by Patch's friends, believes that Lowe has already suffered his share: "He has to live with this the rest of his life. That's enough of a sentence in itself."
Yet given the chance to show a measure of grace, Lowe -- who'd met Patch hanging out at the Village Bar -- has a curious way of flattering her memory. While he describes her as "nice," he says, "I guess she could be a real bitch, but she never was like that with me." Minutes later, he adds, "She wasn't very bright. She'd always be doing something odd."
He goes further: Certain about his own sobriety that evening, Lowe suggests that alcohol blurred Patch's judgment. The comment may hint at his lawyers' strategy heading into trial. Michelle Trommetter and Nancy Heffernan, her fellow barmaid at the Village, both say an investigator hired by Lowe's attorneys prodded them hard about whether they saw Patch drinking.
"I threw him out of my house," Trommetter says. "I mean, she had the judgment to throw my daughter out of the way and then try to get out of the way herself. I don't think someone who'd been drinking could do that."
Heffernan, who keeps a framed photo of her friend behind the bar, stayed on the beach with Patch's body until officials removed it around midnight. "I think everyone, to some degree, feels bad for David Lowe. But he needs to step up and take responsibility for what he did."
Lowe, for his part, seems indifferent to sympathy. Once a familiar presence at the Village -- a corner dive with two pool tables, a jukebox, and not much else -- he now keeps clear, sensing a conspiracy against him. In court, he says, "There's going to be a whole lot of lying assholes coming out of that bar."
For his legal battle, Lowe has put his money where his pugnacity is. He's hired Bossin and Terry Gilbert, two of the state's best DUI attorneys, who have argued for the case's dismissal on the grounds that officers arrested him without probable cause. Outside the courtroom, Lowe figures he can still handle matters himself. Told about rumors that he's bad-mouthed Patch in public, he sets down his beer.
"Who's saying that? I'll take care of 'em, if I have to."
Adams considered nixing his beach party last year. In the end, he decided that holding the bash would better honor Carol Patch's memory. Earl Patch attended, reminiscing with his sister's old friends. At one point, as he stood by the water's edge, he saluted her by dropping to his knees and raising his right fist.
It's a move cribbed from The Legend of Billy Jack, a 1970s loner-vigilante flick. Earl is unsure why he chose that gesture -- in the same way he's unsure why the heavens picked Carol.
"I don't want the death penalty for David Lowe or anything like that. I just want Carol to have justice. I don't want her death to have been for nothing."
Earl says Lowe has never contacted him since the accident. When asked why he's yet to offer his condolences, Lowe shrugs.
"I don't know where he lives."