Two men missing and presumed dead on Lake Eloise in Winter Haven, Polk sheriff says
The Polk County Sheriff's Office continued to search Lake Eloise in Winter Haven on Monday for two men who were missing and presumed dead after a Saturday boating trip turned tragic.
The Sheriff's Office said it continued to search for Orlando Ortiz, 32, and Jeffrey Marrero on Monday with four PCSO watercraft and sonar equipment, two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission watercraft and a Seminole County Sheriff's Office watercraft and underwater drone.
The two men were part of a group of people on a boating trip Saturday. Sheriff Grady Judd said Ortiz and his girlfriend, Velcky Velazques, 38, were celebrating the one-year anniversary of their relationship and decided to rent a boat. They invited Marrero and his two children – 10- and 8-year-old girls.
The people in the group were inexperienced boaters, so they had to take a brief certification class, Judd said. But after passing the class, they rented the boat and went out on Lake Eloise.
“It is a rough day on the water. The wind’s blowing about 20 mph, there’s a two-foot chop, with white caps,” Judd said during a Sunday morning news conference. “They decide, however, that they’ll anchor out in the middle of Lake Eloise.”
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Judd said Velazques jumped into the water with the anchor, which wasn’t tied to the boat.
“She’s just very inexperienced, so she thinks you’re supposed to get into the water, put the anchor in and then tie it to the boat,” Judd said.
He said the boat’s engine was off and immediately the boat began floating away.
“They see she’s struggling, so the two gentlemen jump into the lake in order to save her,” Judd said.
Judd said the boat continued to move away, and Ortiz and Marrero attempted to swim toward the boat.
“At some point in time, when they can’t reach the boat, Ms. Velasquez says she sees them struggling to stay above the water. She starts to float. The boat is moving further away.”
Judd said the 10-year-old girl dialed 911. Central District deputies Glenda Eichholtz and Jonathan Munoz heard the live 911 call and rushed to the Lake Summit boat ramp, knowing it’s the closest public ramp that provides access to Lake Eloise. Lakes Summit and Eloise are connected by a small canal.
When they arrived, a man was putting his fishing boat in the water and rushed the deputies through the canal to Lake Eloise.
There, they saved Velasquez, who had remained floating, Judd said.
The boat with the children aboard had continued floating away and became entangled in vegetation in an area the other boat couldn’t get to. Munoz jumped into the water and swam to the boat with the children, Judd said. Munoz then piloted the boat to a dock at Legoland.
“Our policy at the sheriff’s Office is when someone goes into the lake such as this, we never leave until we find them. And that’s 24-7,” Judd said Sunday.
“We will continue to search until we find them.”
Judd said the water temperature at the bottom of the lake was 64 degrees Sunday and the water is murky. He also said Lake Eloise is 16 to 20 feet at its deepest point and could be as shallow as nine feet. He said the missing men could be at the bottom, or between the bottom and top, and “they’re very difficult to find.”
“While we were able to save the one lady because of the rapid response of our deputies and wonderful citizen in this community to said, ‘Hey, I’m in, get on the boat, let’s go find them,’ and worked very diligently with us, we still don’t know where the two gentlemen are and have every expectation that they perished in the water by drowning.”
Judd said Legoland, which is on Lake Eloise, allowed search and recovery teams to use a dock at the back of one of its hotels. "Legoland could not have been a better community partner," he said.
In a Monday afternoon news release, the Sheriff's Office said Lake Eloise is closed to boat traffic. As part of the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes, it's connected directly to lakes Summit, Lulu and Winterset, and by extension to several other lakes. The Sheriff's Office said all other lakes in the chain are open, but no boaters are allowed on Lake Eloise, meaning any boaters attempting to travel from one lake to another through Lake Eloise would be stopped.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Two men missing on Lake Eloise. Woman and two children rescued