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An 18-year-old went missing while swimming at Mission Beach. His family wants to know what happened

Thursday marks a month since a strong rip current at Mission Beach apparently pulled a teenage basketball standout away from shore. A month since divers, boaters and helicopters searched the coastline and beyond but found nothing.

And for those who knew 18-year-old Woodlain Zachee, it’s been a month of wondering why — and how — the promising youth could disappear on a summer afternoon while swimming at a popular San Diego beach.

His family is hoping the city can give them information to help them understand of how such a tragedy happened not far from lifeguard stations at Mission Beach, said Evan Walker, the attorney his family has hired.

“It’s as simple as that — how could this happen?” Walker said.

Walker said the family wants the city to “do a full and fair investigation and to let us know the results of that investigation.”

Mónica Muñoz, a spokesperson for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, which includes lifeguards, said lifeguards are investigating his presumed drowning, as is standard. There is no target date for the probe to be completed.

Zachee disappeared not long after 3 p.m. June 14 in the water off Jersey Court, north of Belmont Park and near lifeguard tower 16. A lifeguard spotted a group of swimmers and noticed at least one appeared to be struggling, officials said last month.

Crews search off Mission Beach for presumed drowning victim Woodlain Zachee on June 15. The teen went under water and never resurfaced off of Jersey Court near tower 16, a few blocks north of Belmont Park.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The guard radioed for other lifeguards to help with potential rescues. They pulled two teens from the water, but Zachee went under and disappeared.

Intense searches followed, with San Diego Fire-Rescue lifeguards aboard rescue vessels and watercraft using sonar to aid in scuba diver searches. Helicopters hovered above, and the Coast Guard joined in the effort.

Lifeguards say the ocean had strong rip currents that day. After Zachee disappeared, the churning water made it difficult for rescuers to see under the surface.

Weeks passed with no word. Then on Wednesday, a body washed ashore a few miles south at Sunset Cliffs.

“All we know is that it is a male,” Capt. Laura McLean told reporters, including OnScene TV. “We are unable to determine race or anything at this point because it is decomposed.”

It’s too soon to know if the body is that of Zachee. The Medical Examiner’s Office said the soonest it might have any answers is Thursday.

Family and friends gather at Mission Beach during search for Woodlain Zachee

In this June 15 file photo, family and friends gathered as the search resumed off Mission Beach for Woodlain Zachee, 18.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Zachee had been at the beach that June afternoon to celebrate his graduation from Crawford High a day earlier. He’d been a member of the school’s basketball team — he wore number 21 — and played alongside his twin brother.

“This is a kid that loves basketball,” said family friend Brown Simon, who said he is helping them settle into the region. “I see the talent that both brothers have.”

Simon said Zachee’s parents are Haitian, and had moved to Venezuela before immigrating to the U.S. a few years ago.

He said Zachee was a confident and talented young man, who wanted to someday attend UC San Diego and play for their team. Simon also said Zachee was cautious, with his eyes on his future and a dream to play in the NBA.

Walker said Zachee had hoped his basketball prowess would help secure a college scholarship and educational opportunities. “That was his immediate life goal,” Walker said.

Both men said Zachee knew how to swim. Simon said he was told that Zachee had pushed a friend toward the surface before disappearing under the water.

Simon questioned how his disappearance could have happened on a summer afternoon at a popular beach, and why Zachee remains missing.

“He wasn’t 100 miles from the shore, he was just a few meters from the shore,” Simon said.

Others have gotten into trouble while swimming at Mission Beach over the years.

On Tuesday, family members of a 12-year-old boy pulled him from the ocean around 10:50 a.m. The boy had dived into waist-deep water between lifeguard towers 18 and 19, a fire official said. He was unconscious but lifeguards and paramedics were able to revive him and rush him to the hospital. An update on his condition wasn’t available.

And in April 2017, a teenage Syrian refugee was out with friends about 6 p.m. on a Sunday when he was last seen wading in the water at Mission Beach. He was presumed drowned.

A fund to help Zachee’s family has been set up by the Urban Youth Collaborative at uyc.org/pages/give.



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