Traverse City News and Events

Details Emerge In Boardman Death; Safety Upgrades Considered For Launch

By Beth Milligan | Nov. 10, 2017

Drivers of two separate vehicles plunged into the Boardman River at the same boat launch in the span of one month, prompting officials to consider potential safety upgrades at the site.

New details emerged Thursday in the case of the first vehicle, driven by 22-year-old Traverse City resident Morgan Victoria Fawn Elmer. Elmer died after driving a van down the boat launch into the Boardman River at the end of parking Lot D next to Park Street and Grandview Parkway. Her vehicle was discovered October 3 by a local fisherman approximately 100 feet from the launch. Elmer’s body was found in the back of the submerged van.

While authorities found needles and spoons within the vehicle, no drugs were located in the van. Preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive regarding Elmer’s cause of death. But this week, a more detailed autopsy and toxicology report was completed and returned to the Traverse City Police Department, with Elmer’s official cause of death ruled a drowning. Xanax and Neurontin (an anti-epileptic or nerve pain drug) were both active in her bloodstream at the time of her death, according to the report. While a urine test showed fentanyl, morphine, Subutex (used to treat opioid addiction) and a mix of sedatives were also present in her system, those substances did not appear in her blood test, meaning their influence had likely mostly or entirely disappeared at the time of her death.

Local authorities have forwarded the autopsy and toxicology reports to the county prosecuting attorney’s office; no charges are expected to be filed in the case. While the van was registered to another individual, TCPD Captain James Bussell says it appears Elmer had recently purchased the vehicle but not yet registered it in her name. “We believe she had been parked (in the parking lot) for awhile, had been sleeping there and then woke up and attempted to drive away and drove into the river,” Bussell says.

None of the substances found in Elmer’s system were at a toxic or fatal level, according to the toxicology report. But Bussell says it’s “more than likely the medications she had on board” caused confusion and could have influenced Elmer to believe she was driving on Grandview Parkway or following an exit to the parkway instead of driving toward the boat launch. “It would be a guess at this point, but it appears that’s what happened,” Bussell says.

Almost a month to the day after Elmer’s death, another local couple also became confused in the parking lot at night and drove down the same boat launch into the river. The Benzonia couple ended up partially submerged in the Boardman Saturday (November 4). The occupants were able to safely escape the vehicle, then later drive it away from the launch after authorities came and towed the van out of the river.

“There was no influence of alcohol or controlled substances,” says TCPD Chief Jeff O’Brien. “They were just confused. They came out from downtown and thought it was a ramp to the parkway.”

The two incidents only weeks apart prompted city staff to discuss the parking lot and boat launch Thursday morning at the city’s traffic committee meeting. A half-million dollar reconstruction of the Lot D parking lot was completed earlier this summer, with the lot reconfigured and completely resurfaced, a new boat and kayak launch built, and the riverwalk replaced. Speculation at the traffic committee meeting mentioned the possibility that while Lot D “looks more like a parking lot now than it did before the reconstruction,” the new pavement could be misleading to drivers, says TCPD Captain Keith Gillis.

“It’s brand new blacktop, so if you’re sitting there at the other end at night looking down (the lot), it might give the impression it goes right out onto the parkway,” says Gillis. “We talked about whether we maybe needed to close the entrance of the parking lot from Park Street, or somehow change the way you enter the lot. It’s full of cars and boats during the day, but at night there’s nothing in the lot, and with that blacktop I could see someone turning in and thinking it’s the parkway.”

City Assistant Manager Penny Hill concurs, noting that officials on the scene of Saturday’s accident believed it could have been caused by a combination of lot and weather conditions. “During that night it was black and rainy, and the lights were shining on the water and on the street,” Hill says. “It was probably hard to tell what was street and what was water.”

While Gillis, Hill and other traffic committee members discussed multiple options for improvements at Thursday’s meeting, the group’s recommendation to the city engineering department – which has final say over safety upgrades – focused on providing clearer, better signage near the lot’s turnaround warning about the impending boat launch. City Planning Director Russ Soyring says his initial reaction after learning about the two accidents was that "we need to do something to increase reflectability in that area.”

“Maybe we paint something on the pavement itself saying ‘boat launch ahead,’ similar to how we have ‘school ahead’ markings,” says Soyring. The city planning director also speculates GPS apps on phones could potentially be confusing the parking lot and parkway, giving drivers false directions. “We obviously need to address it now that we’ve had a second automobile go in there. We need more in-your-face warnings.”

Hill notes the traffic committee discussed the possibility of blocking off the boat launch immediately, but says it still remains in use even in late season by local fishermen. Once snow begins accumulating, however, the lot will have a built-in safety check: Lot D is used for snow storage by the city, with snow piled near the boat launch throughout the winter season.

Still, for the long-term safety of the lot, City Engineer Tim Lodge says his department will consider the traffic committee's recommendation and analyze conditions near the boat launch – including signage, lighting and other factors – to determine if improvements are needed.

“There’s a phenomenon (of this happening) at other road-end sites…we should analyze those areas to look to see if there’s anything in common that we could apply to make things better (at Lot D),” says Lodge. “I’m guessing reflective paint could be an easy fix…but we’ll be discussing it and looking at the cause-and-effect there and potential solutions.”

Pictured: (L-R) The van of Morgan Victoria Fawn Elmer submerged in the Boardman River October 3; the van of a Benzonia couple in the Boardman River at the same boat launch November 4. Photo credit: Traverse City Police Department.

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