Joseph J. Muegel 5/2798 Chena Lake Camper Drown
Amanda C. Muegel 5/2798 Chena Lake Camper Drown
Evan Simms 5/2798 Chena Lake Camper Drown

3 who drowned may have fled bear
By Peter Porco, ADN 5/29/98

A newly married couple and the man's 7-year-old stepbrother drowned in an Interior lake earlier this week, and Alaska State Troopers are theorizing the three panicked after seeing a bear and fleeing into the water.

The bodies of Joseph J. Muegel, 21, Amanda C. Muegel, 18, and Evan Simms, 7, were found Tuesday in the waters of Chena Lakes Recreation Area west of Fairbanks, troopers said.

The Muegels had married only weeks earlier. All lived in Fairbanks.

"It's extremely sad, and it's befuddling, and it just seems odd that something would happen to all three people all at the same time like this," said Trooper Lt. Dan Hickman.

Although the popular recreation area 17 miles east of Fairbanks was crowded with more than 1,000 visitors on a hot Memorial Day, the three had staked out a somewhat secluded cove of the 200-acre lake, troopers said. No one saw what happened.

Two bears estimated to be about 2 years old were seen Sunday at a park picnic shelter about a mile from the spot where the three fished, and they were thought to be the same bears, said Karl Kassel, parks superintendent for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

After the three deaths, the borough closed the northern section of the park, known as River Park, until state biologists can find the bears, Kassel said.

Troopers found bear signs where the Muegels and Sims had been fishing, said trooper Sgt. Jim McCann. A plastic grocery bag that lay among their fishing gear bore obvious bite signs, he said.

"It looks like puncture marks and tear marks from something with teeth and claws," McCann said.

Also, some bear prints were found among the willows and spruce trees nearby but their age was uncertain, troopers said.

The bodies of the three were fully clothed and bore no marks or signs of foul play.

"There was no booze, no drugs, just some nice people out fishing," McCann said.

Their fishing poles lay in the grass where each of them headed into the water, he said.

"We can't figure out what makes them jump in the water. They walked in for sure. ... We can see their foot impressions going in the water."

Chena Lakes Recreation Area is 2,000 acres leased by Fairbanks from the U.S. Army Corps

of Engineers. The lake, consisting of five filled-in gravel pits, attracts families with its picnicking, boating, fishing, volleyball, basketball and other activities.

The three fished in a spot halfway between the developed Lake Park section and River Park. A 20-foot-wide rim of short grass separated the lake from a thick band of willows and spruce. An unpaved bike trail circled that, with unending forest beyond, McCann said.

"It's a big-time sparsely populated area," he said. "There's big wilderness that goes on forever."

McCann speculated that the bear or bears may have come out of the brush and panicked the three. Based on where their poles were found, the couple fished close together, with Simms standing about 15 yards away, McCann said.

The water is only a few feet deep at the shore and dropped to 15 feet deep about 25 feet out. Trooper divers reported the temperature was 60 degrees at that depth, he said.

Joseph Muegel was the only one who could swim, troopers said.

The combination of the cold water and weight of their clothing probably caused them to panic further, McCann guessed.

"How deep do you go if you can't swim?" he said. "If the girl went too far, and the young man is trying to catch his wife - and the boy is in trouble and maybe the man doesn't see that."

"They weren't thinking clearly," McCann said. "One needs to be prepared for everything out in the wilderness even if the wilderness happens to be near a bunch of kids building sand castles."

The Muegels worked at Spenard Builders Supply in Fairbanks. Joseph worked in the yard and Amanda was a file clerk, said store manager Ray Foster.

"They were very good employees. It's a terrific loss to our branch, no question about that," Foster said.

"It's a little baby, just a cute little boy," McCann said about Simms. "It's just so terrible."

"What a shame," he said. "Three young lives wasted like that."

The bodies were scheduled to be flown to Anchorage for autopsies, troopers said.