From TheNewsTribune.com, Paula Horton, Herald Staff Writer, 28 Jun 2011.
A 35-year-old who drowned at Two Rivers Park in Finley last week officially has been identified by the Benton County Coroner’s Office.
Friends at the park on Wednesday had said the man was Jose Mejia, but Coroner John Hansens said he had information last week that indicated the man’s name was Fernando Ramon Diego.
Hansens said a cellphone found with Diego’s belongings was used to contact relatives and they provided his real name. It was confirmed by friends Monday.
“They brought in paperwork identifying him and explained to us he was in fact in the country illegally and had been using false documents,” Hansens said.
Diego had a resident alien card with his picture on it and the name Jose Mejia, but Hansens said he confirmed through Immigration and Customs Enforcement that the card was a fake.
Diego is from a small village called Quixabaj, which is near Santa Eulalia, Guatemala.
He has a wife, two sons ages, 13 or 14 and 12, and a girl who is 9 or 10, said his friend, Juan Bautista.
Bautista said Diego had been living in Kennewick for more than two years and was a farm worker. He sent money home to help his family.
“I’m the closest friend that he had here,” Bautista said. “I looked at him like my brother. He was a friend that became part of my family.”
Those who worked with Diego knew him as Mejia, but Bautista said his friends knew him as Diego.
Bautista said he had known Diego for more than a year. He met Diego when Diego lived with other Guatemalan friends, and eventually Diego went to stay with Bautista in his apartment.
Bautista was not at the lagoon with Diego when he drowned.
He said he got a call from someone, but the connection wasn’t good and he heard them say something about a firefighter. He thought the house was on fire, and he said he told them just to get out.
“I never expected that to happen,” Bautista said of Diego’s drowning.
He said he thinks his friend didn’t know how to swim but was excited about getting on the water in the raft.
“I’m pretty sure he didn’t think about what the consequences was,” Bautista said. “I think if he had a life jacket, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Bautista said they went to the river last year, but they didn’t have a raft or boat, and Diego did not get in the water.
When they weren’t working, Bautista said he and Diego liked to shoot hoops and sometimes they’d go to the river, but they didn’t get in and swim.
Bautista is in contact with Diego’s family in Riverside, Calif., who are trying to make arrangements to get Diego’s body back to Guatemala. He’s trying to collect money from friends or anyone who will can help, to cover the costs.
“I’m trying to tell my friends if there’s extra money, we should send it to the widow to help them survive,” Bautista said. “The place where they live, they depend on what they harvest. … That’s why he came here. He was supporting his family (and) sending money home.”
— Paula Horton: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org