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Osoyoos Lake drowning claims South Surrey family man

John Mele - Contributed photo
John Mele
— image credit: Contributed photo

Friends and family members of well-known South Surrey real-estate developer John Mele are in mourning after the 43-year-old died suddenly late last week while boating on Washington's Osoyoos Lake.

The Morgan Creek father of three is being remembered as someone whom everyone knew, and as a family man whom others turned to for help.

Mele drowned Friday afternoon after he reportedly did a back-flip off the side of the boat and into the lake. According to his older sister, Chris Reid, he resurfaced once briefly, then went back under water.

Mele's three children – Matthew, 14; Ben, 10; and Olivia, 8 – were on the boat, along with Mele's longtime friend Darren Mahaffey and his three children.

Mele's wife, Debbie, was on shore with Mahaffey's wife, about 150 yards from the boat, Reid said.

"I think everyone expected him to come back up. They probably thought he was just swimming to the other side of the boat to surprise the kids," Reid told Peace Arch News Tuesday morning. "But then when he didn't come up, Darren jumped in to find him, but that lake is so murky – you can't really see more than a few feet in front of you."

Okanogan County Sheriff's Office would reveal little information, telling PAN: "The incident is still under investigation and the report is not complete."

However, sheriff Frank Rogers did confirm that private divers, as well as divers from the sheriff's office, spent the weekend searching for Mele. His body was recovered from the lake Sunday morning, when more advanced sonar equipment was brought in.

"He was like a second brother to me," said Mele's brother-in-law Gary Hawes, who was nine years old when Mele met Debbie. "He was a guy I could always look up to. He was so successful in business – he always had lots on the go, but never bit off more than he could chew – and he always put his family first. He was just so loved. I never heard anyone say a bad thing about him."

Though an autopsy had yet to be completed, Reid and Hawes both said many believe Mele suffered some kind of medical issue while in the water, which led to his drowning. There were no signs of stress or struggle, they said.

Mele was well-known in the community for his business endeavours – he and friend Chuck Westgard operated Royal Lepage Westgard Realty – and he also coached youth baseball. Mele was also at one time a minority shareholder in Westgard's local Junior A hockey team, the Surrey Eagles.

"Last year, his oldest son Matthew's baseball team made it to nationals, and that was the highlight of John's sports (life)," Reid said. "He was just so proud of him, as he is of all his kids."

She noted "everyone seems to have a story about John – a lot of people had the same stories."

In addition, Mele also seemed to be able to find a solution for any problem.

"He was a doer. No matter what it was, if he thought something needed doing, or fixing, he just went and did it. If you needed a toilet fixed, or something like that, if he couldn't do it, he had a guy. Or if he didn't have a guy, he had a guy who had a guy. He just took care of everybody."

Reid noted that as siblings, she and her brother didn't always see eye to eye, but that he would always come through.

"He could infuriate me to no end," she said with a laugh, "but that's what brothers are supposed to do… I always knew that if I needed him, he was there for me."

Mele's immediate family members are holding up as well as could be expected, Reid said, adding that support from friends and family has helped.

"The kids are holding up OK, and Debbie is being as strong as she can. They're going to be OK," she said.

"They have an army of people to help them out, but they'll have some awfully big shoes to fill."

 

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