Tuesday, August 03, 2021
63.0°F

Attorney General won’t file charges in Glacier Park scuba death

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | June 23, 2021 8:45 AM

The U.S. Attorney’s office of Montana has declined to press criminal charges against a dive instructor who was involved in a incident where a Missoula woman drowned in Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald.

On Nov. 1, 2020, Linnea Rose Mills, 18, was diving with a group near the dock at Lake McDonald Lodge when Mills ran into problems and drowned.

On June 10, 2021 the U.S. Attorney’s Office informed National Park Service special agent Curtis Kennedy, who investigated the case, that it would not prosecute dive instructor Deborah Snow of Missoula for criminal endangerment in the matter.

“As we discussed, it appears Snow was negligent — and perhaps grossly so — in several respects. Specifically, your investigation indicates Snow did not ensure Mills had a functional dry suit with appropriately placed weights and she failed to continually supervise Mills during the dive,” the letter states.

However, Snow’s negligence did not rise to the point of being criminal.

“Snow reported she had no specific concern about Mills being able to successfully complete this dive, and Snow still did not know what had gone wrong. The medical examiner that conducted Mill’s autopsy determined Mills died to asphyxia by drowning,” the letter continues. “The witness statements and video from the incident shed some light on the events of Mills’ drowning, but we can not establish that it was Snow’s knowing conduct that caused her death. Accordingly, we are declining criminal prosecution of Deborah Snow,” the letter, signed by U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson and Karla E. Painter, states.

The letter to Curtis was posted by Linnea Mills mother, Lisa Mills, on her Facebook page.

The family, in turn, responded to the decision by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“We have grieved the loss of our daughter since the day she left this Earth. Now, we grieve the loss of fairness, justice, and competence in the public officials who are charged with keeping us safe. This is not only a loss for Linnea and our family, but also for the citizens of the State of Montana,” it states. “We respectfully ask U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson and his office to take a more careful look at all the evidence, with the objective advice and assistance of medical and diving professionals who understand what it means, and to consider bringing charges against any and all culpable parties under any and all applicable criminal statutes. As it stands now, Debra Snow will not be charged with so much as a parking violation for causing the death of our daughter. This is not justice.”

In addition, they claim several missteps were made in the dive itself, including putting 44 pounds of weights on Mills that could not be released in the event of an emergency.

Snow, who works at the Gull Dive Center in Missoula, could not be immediately reached for comment and a message left on a machine there was not returned.

The Mills family has also filed a wrongful death suit in the matter against the Gull Dive Center and others, claiming a host of missteps were made by the company. The suit, for example, notes that Mills had only five dives prior to the Lake McDonald dive and they were all in warm without the use of a dry suit.

Dry suits are more difficult to maintain buoyancy, the suit claims. Mills was wearing a dry suit the day she drowned.

“Snow never advised Linnea that she was supposed to take a Dry Suit Diver Specialty Course before she could safely use a dry suit. Snow also never advised Linnea that she was required to participate in a confined water orientation to the dry suit before she could safely use the dry suit in open water,” the suit claims.

The company also did not have a commercial use permit to offer training dives in Lake McDonald, the suit maintained.

But the crux of matter lies in the dry suit itself, the suit claims, because it didn’t have a “power inflator” which would have allowed Mills to inflate the suit as she descended into the water.

She also did not have a proper weight belt. Instead, they put weights in her pockets.

A belt can be undone and taken off.

The dive was also late in the day — just before sunset, or about 5 p.m. Mills and other student divers on the excursion, had no lights.

Mills did a successful first dive to about 15 feet, but on the second dive at about 60 feet, Mills started having difficulty.

She motioned for help, but her motioning caused her to lose her balance and she went over the edge of an underwater wall.

Another diver, Bob Gentry, caught up with her at 85 feet.

The incident was caught on a GoPro camera one of the divers was wearing.

Gentry tried to release the weights off Mills’ body, but he couldn’t find them because they were in her pockets.

Gentry, also tried to give Mills air from his emergency regulator and tried to pull her to the surface by brute force, but couldn’t.

As they struggled, the two continued to sink down the wall to a depth of 105 feet.

Gentry went to the surface, contacted the others eventually.

Then Snow dove after Mills. She found the teen in 127 feet of water and had to remove the teen’s air tanks and other weights to bring her to the surface.

By then, Mills had drowned, the suit claims.

The suit seeks $12 million in damages from Snow, another instructor Seth Liston, David and Jeannine Olson, who owned Gull Scuba Center, Kendra Potter and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.

Potter allegedly sold the dry suit to Mills.

The suit was filed in May in Missoula County District Court and the Mills family is seeking a jury trial in the case.