Rescuers search for girl, 12, dad missing in Sandusky Bay

Empty kayaks found day after pair left for 2-hour trip

4/8/2013
BY TANYA IRWIN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ruth Brown, center, in a green coat, mother of missing 12-year-old Viola Francis, stands with friends near the edge of the bay on Sandusky's Linwood Avenue, where Viola’s father, Jonathan Francis, lives.
Ruth Brown, center, in a green coat, mother of missing 12-year-old Viola Francis, stands with friends near the edge of the bay on Sandusky's Linwood Avenue, where Viola’s father, Jonathan Francis, lives.

Viola Francis and her father, Jonathan Francis, were last seen entering Sandusky Bay on Saturday afternoon.
Viola Francis and her father, Jonathan Francis, were last seen entering Sandusky Bay on Saturday afternoon.

SANDUSKY — Ruth Brown cried on the shoreline where her 12-year-old daughter, Viola Francis, was last seen going into the water in a kayak Saturday.

She hugged her fiance, Tim Snyder, Jr., for comfort as a handful of her friends and family gathered around her.

They watched as a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter zipped back and forth along the shoreline and between the Crystal Rock area and the Edison Bridge.

“I never thought I’d have to deal with something like this,” she said Sunday afternoon through her tears.

Viola and her father, Jonathan Francis, 30, went missing Saturday from Crystal Rock, near the southern shore of Sandusky Bay. They were last seen leaving their home with blue and green kayaks about 3 p.m. Saturday by a neighbor.

Mr. Francis’ girlfriend, Sheila McClain, who lives with Mr. Francis and his daughter about a block from Sandusky Bay, near where the kayaks launched, reported her boyfriend and Viola missing at 5:20 a.m. Sunday.

“They were only going to be gone a few hours, and they didn’t come back,” Ms. McClain said. “I was kind of waiting, thinking they had gotten hung up somewhere, but then it got to be too late. I just couldn’t wait no more, it was driving me nuts. I had to call [the police].”

Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said the two kayaks were recovered about 9:30 a.m. Sunday.

Ruth Brown, center, mother of Viola Francis, is comforted by friends near Sandusky Bay, as the Coast Guard searches for Viola and Jonathan Francis.
Ruth Brown, center, mother of Viola Francis, is comforted by friends near Sandusky Bay, as the Coast Guard searches for Viola and Jonathan Francis.

He said they were found abandoned and floating in the water on the north shore of Sandusky Bay in Ottawa County almost directly across the bay from Crystal Rock.

The pair started near Crystal Rock and planned to paddle to the Edison Bridge and back, Sheriff Sigsworth said.

Ms. McClain said the weather was nice when the two departed in the kayaks.

“It was a little windy, but there weren’t any whitecaps on the bay,” she said.

The two normally wear life jackets when boating, but because it was going to be just a quick trip, they didn’t take them, said Ms. McClain, who went out on a private boat with friends to search the waters Sunday evening.

Mr. Francis’ mom, Gwen Gwinner, of Willard, Ohio, said her son got the kayaks for Christmas and had been out in them once before. In fact, he’d been on the same trip he took his daughter on Saturday in Sandusky Bay.

“He said it was about a two-hour trip between Crystal Rock and the [Edison] bridge,” she said.

She said her son and Ms. McClain have been dating about a year and that she and Viola’s mother, Ruth Brown of Sandusky, have a good relationship.

Ms. Brown, 28, and Mr. Snyder gathered at Ms. McClain’s home with about a dozen friends and relatives.

Ms. Brown said her daughter, who lives with her father and Ms. McClain, loves the outdoors.

“She’s a tomboy,” Ms. Brown said. “She loves catching bugs and snakes. And she loves the water.”

Gwen Gwinner, left, mother of Jonathan Francis, stands with McKallah Back, right, on Mr. Francis' porch on Linwood Avenue.
Gwen Gwinner, left, mother of Jonathan Francis, stands with McKallah Back, right, on Mr. Francis' porch on Linwood Avenue.

Ms. Brown last spoke with her daughter Saturday afternoon and didn’t know about the planned kayak trip. She said the preteen had been out in the kayaks one time before.

The fifth-grade student at Margaretta Middle School in Castalia, Ohio, loves music, especially classic rock.

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office pulled its crews from the search about 12:06 p.m. Sunday, according to a dispatcher.

However, Erie County and the U.S. Coast Guard continued searching. Late last night, the Coast Guard called off the search said they would not go out today.

Mr. Francis was reported to be wearing navy blue sweatpants and a hoodie sweatshirt and his daughter was reported to be wearing pink boots, dark leggings, and a dark coat, according to the Coast Guard.

Staff writer Mark Reiter contributed to this report.