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Drowned teen's family grieves, waits for answers

With no immediate explanation for Jeff Sharlow's death, family members remember him as a strong swimmer and devoted Scout.

JAMIE JONES and WILL VAN SANT
Published July 27, 2003

They stood outside a pale green house, remembering him.

They talked of his smile. His big heart. His special recipe for key lime pie.

They would have welcomed 16-year-old Jeff Sharlow home Saturday, after seven weeks as an instructor at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation in Hernando County.

Instead, Sharlow's family went about the solemn industry of planning his funeral.

"He was shorter than me, but I looked up to him," said Sharlow's older brother, Scott. "Now, I'm really looking up to him."

Scott Sharlow, 18, said he had not yet heard all the details concerning his brother's death by Friday evening.

Sheriff's deputies said Jeff Sharlow, who taught rappeling at the camp, and an older instructor, Kim Vogel, 43, of Tarpon Springs, were hiking on the wooded property and decided to take a shortcut through a pond when Sharlow fell into a hole.

Authorities said Sharlow grabbed for Vogel, and he, too, slipped beneath the water. Vogel righted himself, waded to shore and summoned help. Vogel later helped deputies find Sharlow's body, clad in a T-shirt and shorts.

The investigation into the drowning continues, officials said.

Scott Sharlow said Vogel was devastated by what happened. He said he and his brother had known Vogel for about five years through the Boy Scouts.

"I'm sure he did everything possible to save him," Sharlow said.

Vogel did not return a call for comment Saturday.

Sharlow's great aunt, Karen Oij, 46, of St. Petersburg, said the family was surprised the teen died in water, because he was a strong swimmer.

"He could swim in the ocean against the current, climb out for a slice of pizza, then go back at it again," she said.

Oij could characterize his death only as a "freak accident."

"We had an angel for almost 17 years, and it was time for him to go home," she said. "We don't have an answer."

Sharlow's death has left local Scout leaders numb and shaken.

"It is so bizarre," said John Cabeza, chief executive officer of the West Central Council in Seminole, which has more than 9,000 members from Pinellas and Pasco counties. "There's just shock."

Sharlow was helping teach some of the about 200 campers who visit the reservation each week during the summer, earning merit badges and advancing their Scout rank.

Cabeza said Vogel is a regular adult volunteer at the reservation with a reputation for being responsible.

"They got in a very unexpected event in the water," Cabeza said. "I'm convinced Kim did everything he could to help Jeff."

Sharlow had been involved in Scouting for 11 years and was working toward the rank of Eagle Scout. Cabeza said the teen and his family, which lives on 31st Avenue N in St. Petersburg, were very involved in the West Central Council.

Sharlow had worked on developing a high adventure program for older scouts that the council plans to implement next summer, Cabeza said.

"He was one of the more popular kids on our camp staff," he said. "Jeff was a fine, fine young man."

Although Hernando County officials said Friday that a medical condition might have contributed to the drowning, Cabeza said he was unaware of any illness Sharlow suffered that could have played a role.

While comforting Sharlow's family is the primary concern of the local Scouting community right now, Cabeza said he is eager for the investigation into the drowning to be finished so future incidents might be prevented.

"When a tragedy happens like this," Cabeza said, "we want to ensure that it never happens again."

The family plans a memorial service from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg. The funeral will be held there at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oij said.

She, Sharlow's parents and his five siblings will comfort themselves with memories, thinking of Sharlow's desire to become a chef and his love of camping and hiking.

"He was a brother to be proud of," Scott Sharlow said.

Sharlow's father, David, stood nearby, tears in his eyes.

"He was an incredible kid," he said.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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