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Drowning victim had a love for life

The Palm Harbor man had made some bad decisions, friends and family say, but had been turning his life around before he died Saturday.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- He was the kid who always wanted to ride the highest roller coaster, his mother said.

John E. "Johnny" Kasting was spontaneous, magnetic and daring. It was part of what was attractive about him, said his mother, Pam Williams.

"He had this personality, he was just fun to be around," his mother said. "But some of the things you loved him for are the things that killed him."

It doesn't surprise her very much that Kasting and a friend decided to go for a ride on a WaveRunner in Lake Tarpon in the darkness of the early hours of Saturday morning.

The friend, Thomas O'Neil, 24, a recent graduate of the University of Florida, told sheriff's deputies he turned the watercraft to avoid hitting some hydrilla that had moments before clogged their intake pipe.

Kasting apparently fell off. O'Neil said he circled quickly, but couldn't find him anywhere. It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that search crews turned up Kasting's body.

In a news story about his death, authorities state the two had been drinking. Williams worries that's how people will judge her son.

"I know he was drinking," she said, "but there was so much more to him than that."

Handsome and popular, Kasting seemed to be at one of the happiest points of his life, Williams said.

Though 23 years old and living at home, "he was right there in his life where he was getting ready to make some decisions to get out on his own," Williams said. "He was starting to learn from some of his bad decisions. He was growing up."

A landscaper with his stepfather's business, Williams Nursery in Oldsmar, Kasting liked to cut loose a bit on weekends, she said. He had a close-knit circle of friends, several of whom he called his Florida brothers.

"He was all about fun, having a good time," said friend Michael Lockhart, 21, of Odessa. "He was always making everyone laugh. Everyone always knew who he was.

"Johnny was Johnny," Lockhart said.

Bucky Shell, 22, of Tarpon Springs, knew Kasting ever since he can remember. They went to the same church, First Christian Church of Tarpon Springs. They smoked their first cigarette together.

Though he was often joking and trying to make people laugh, Shell said, Kasting also carried a lot of emotional pain from his parents' divorce.

"He would make people laugh and laugh and laugh," Shell said, "and then he'd go sit by the fire and have a tear over something."

Kasting's brother, Troy, 30, a teacher in Memphis, Tenn., said John made some poor choices after their parents' divorce. He dropped out of East Lake High School. But years later he pursued a GED. He had passed most of the exam, though one section lingered.

A year ago on Mother's Day, John went to visit his grandmother, who was dying of leukemia. She pulled him aside and said, "You know what would make grandmother very happy. I'd sure like to see you finish that up."

So he did, in August.

Say he couldn't do something, and Johnny would give it a shot anyway, friends said. It's how his pickup truck ended up stuck in thick mud more than once.

"He lived like nothing could ever happen to him," Troy said. "He pushed the envelope too much."

Too often, he was easily influenced by friends, Shell said, and sometimes he drank too much. Records show he was twice convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol. But he was always there for friends, Shell said.

Even though he was skinny, said friend A.J. Johns, 20, of Tarpon Springs, Kasting would stand up to an 8-foot man for his friends.

"He just loved life," his mother said. "It's like he had so much potential that wasn't tapped. He was just starting to realize his full possibilities. How can you describe a 23-year-old's death? There is so much he didn't experience."

A lover of the outdoors, Kasting was also a strong swimmer, Troy said, which makes the accident difficult to understand.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Deputy Duane Somers said the cause of death has yet to be determined, so the investigation remains open. Autopsy results from the medical examiner's office are expected today, he said.

While no citations or charges have been filed, Somers noted there were two violations of state law. First, he said, neither of the men were wearing life jackets. And personal watercraft are not allowed to be operated at night.

Although deputies said Sunday the two had been drinking, Somers said O'Neil was not impaired.

"That is not an issue right now," Somers said.

But Williams believes if not for her son drinking, he would still be alive. She does not blame O'Neil.

"I in no way hold Tom O'Neil responsible, at all," Williams said. "I feel really bad for him. I feel like they made a real bad decision -- emphasis on they."

On Sunday night, 21 of Kasting's friends gathered at the Lakeshore clubhouse next to the lake. They brought flowers, lit candles and passed around pictures of Kasting. They told stories about him. They laughed and cried. Nearby residents brought by food and drinks.

"I don't think Johnny knew how much people loved him until last night," Shell said, "when he could look down and see how much people cared."

A visitation will be held on Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Homes' Bartelt Road Chapel in Holiday, with a memorial service to follow at 8 p.m.

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