MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Over the past 20 years, 11 college-age men have drowned in a popular and powerful river in western Wisconsin.
Their deaths have been surrounded by rumors and conspiracy theories.
The sad history inspired a Minnesota man’s new series of books.
The first book in the series, “Death by Drowning,” led to an author’s own quest for answers.
“As a news person, I always wondered if I could write a book,” author Gary Evans said.
His print career spanned decades — from the days of editing Sid Hartman’s columns at the then Minneapolis Tribune to management positions at the Winona Daily News.
“Every community has a few mysteries that people wish someone would solve,” he said.
For Evans, that mystery involved the Mississippi River and what happened 30 miles to the southeast.
Starting in 1997 and for 11 years after, one college-age man drowned every year near the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Speculation in the past pointed to a possible serial killer at work.
Evans poured over old newspaper clippings and files to plot his own story. “Death By Drowning” is his fictional account of what happened.
The book is mystery novel of two detectives and the surprising connection they uncovered.
While his story isn’t true, Evans can’t ignore the facts he came across to write the book.
“The deaths seem too uncannily similar to not be a product of a killer,” he said.
However, the LaCrosse Police Department says that’s not the case.
Officers have investigated a potential connection for years. The FBI has even taken a look.
Law enforcement says the only thing to blame is alcohol. All of the young men who drowned had a blood alcohol level between two and five times the legal limit for driving a car.
Since his book’s release, Evans has received calls and emails from across the country from readers with their own clues.
The response has led him to write more books to continue the series.
“You think it’s very plausible that the river could be a killing machine,” he said.
A spokesperson for the La Crosse Police Department says that the city has several efforts to keep students from the river, including a dedicated river watch team on campus, changing walking paths and adding more lighting.