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Ex-Vernon leader's fatal fall on island ruled an accident

July 24, 2012 |  5:00 pm

A former top city of Vernon official whose body was found last month in the rocky waters off a state park in the Bay Area died when he accidentally drowned, a Marin County coroner's official said Tuesday.

Eric T. Fresch, 58, died June 29, hours after a state audit released a grim picture of the tiny industrial city’s finances and questioned decisions made when he was Vernon’s top administrator.

Marin County sheriff's Sgt. Keith Boyd of the coroner’s division said investigators determined that Fresch fell while walking on wet rocks off Angel Island, struck his head and suffered fractures to his cervical vertebrae.

The injuries themselves were likely not enough to kill or paralyze Fresch, Boyd said, but appear to have prevented him from saving himself once in the water. His body was found floating face down not far from the shore.

“He could have been knocked unconscious or he was in so much pain that moving would have been difficult,” Boyd said.

About a week after his death, investigators recovered a camera near where Fresch was believed to have fallen. Photos recovered suggest the former Vernon official was taking photos around the time that he died.

A bicycle that Fresch had been riding around the island was found not far away near a sea wall, Boyd said.

Because of the timing of Fresch’s death, Boyd said investigators seriously probed the possibility of a suicide or even a murder. But there was no evidence that Fresch was either suicidal or that anyone had been following him.

“The camera is a big factor in the whole situation,” Boyd said. “It validates that he was by himself, out taking scenic pictures” near where he died.

A toxicology exam also found no drugs or alcohol in his system, and the autopsy ruled out a heart attack or other medical emergency.

The day that Fresch died, the state auditor reported that her staff had been unable to reach him for an interview despite a subpoena and repeated attempts. In response to those claims, a state senator called for Los Angeles County prosecutors to investigate Fresch. For years, Fresch was apparently the highest paid public official in California, getting $1.6 million in 2008 to run a 5.2-square-mile city of only about 100 residents but 1,800 businesses. In May, the California Public Employees Retirement System announced that it was slashing Fresch’s pension after finding irregularities with it and those of other Vernon officials. Fresch’s service to the city, which began when he started advising Vernon as an outside attorney in the 1980s, was to conclude at the of that month.

Boyd said that authorities released some incorrect information shortly after Fresch's body was found, including that he had apparently fallen about 150 feet down a steep embankment. Boyd said there was a cliff above where Fresch had been when he died, but that jumping or falling from that height would have been inconsistent with his injuries, as well as with the location of his body.

Fresch apparently decided to stroll on rocks that were sometimes obscured by the sea water during high tides. Some of the rocks are covered by moss, and it’s possible he slipped on  a rock before he died. Because of a childhood injury, Fresch had limited use of his left arm, which could have kept him from bracing himself during a fall, Boyd said.

“If he slipped, did he have a way of bracing himself? We may never know that,” Boyd said. “It was a ground-level fall, but it wasn’t like he was landing on a flat surface. Everything he was landing on was hard, jagged surface.”

Fresch had taken a ferry to the island about 10:30 a.m., and his wife reported him missing after he failed to return home, and then he didn’t turn up at the ferry dock when she took a boat there. His body was found about 6 p.m., about an hour after she called authorities.

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--Hector Becerra

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