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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

A recent UF graduate died Saturday while tubing with his friends at Ginnie Springs on the Santa Fe River.

L. Jahi James, 22, of Lauderhill, Fla., fell into the water when the inner tube he was floating on was flipped over, said Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office investigator Tracy Taylor.

When James didn't resurface, his friends dove into the river to search for him. It took them almost 10 minutes to find him. They attempted CPR.

Gilchrist County Emergency Management rescuers arrived about 20 minutes later and could not revive James. They pronounced him dead at 3:24 p.m.

James graduated from UF in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry. After shadowing a pediatrician at the University of Miami Hospital for a year, he was accepted to the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine in Maryland. The U.S. Army was going to pay for it.

He would have officially taken up his commission as a second lieutenant on July 25.

Ryan Jones, 22, was on the tubing trip with James. He and James had been friends since their sophomore year of high school, and the tubing trip was part of an informal reunion with a group of scattered friends.

They arrived at the Ginnie Springs Outdoors launch site around 2 p.m.

Jones was the one who started shouting when he realized James hadn't resurfaced. He said James flipped about 200 feet from the springs exit, 45 minutes into their trip.

"It's just a shock that someone that nice and genuine - something so horrible could happen to him," Jones said.

Jones said he and other members of the tubing group raced to meet the ambulance carrying James to Shands Hospital, but when they arrived, hospital employees said James had not been checked in. They later found out he had already been declared dead.

When Taylor arrived at the scene, he spoke to two of James' friends, whom he declined to name. They said James had drunk a quarter of a bottle of vodka when members of the group started flipping each other's rafts, and James was dumped into the water.

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James' family back home and some of his friends disagree.

Jones said James didn't want to drink in front of his 18-year-old brother, Caleb, who was on the trip. Caleb is a sophomore at UF, and James didn't want to set a bad example for his brother.

"I've never seen brothers as close as they were," said Raymond Brandte, 23, a friend of James'.

Jones maintains James only had a one-liter Zephyrhills water bottle with Arnold Palmer iced tea and lemonade, to which James added a little vodka. Jones said he saw James only have that one drink throughout the 45-minute trip. He said James was asleep when two of the friends flipped his tube.

Jones thought people assumed James was drinking out of a vodka bottle because it surfaced where he had fallen into the springs.

Larry and Theresa James, however, think their son is being wrongly portrayed as responsible for his death.

James was tired after arriving in Gainesville around midnight the night before and waking up early, his father said.

But if his son was so drunk he couldn't swim or wake up, Larry James has speculated, James would have floated on the surface of the river.

Instead, he sank to the bottom, and it took the group several minutes of searching to find James.

Larry James thinks his son was lying on his tube when his friends pushed his feet up and flipped his head under the water. Water could have rushed up his nostrils, which could have shocked James awake so that he reflexively opened his mouth to breathe underwater.

"I think my son was dead in less than a minute," Larry James said.

James' mother, Theresa James, said she doesn't think the friends who flipped her son's tube over meant any harm. One of the men who flipped James said James hit his head, though, but the coroner's office has since told the parents that their son did not suffer head trauma.

Theresa James said she thinks the two men who spoke to investigator Tracy Taylor said her son drank more than he did "to save their butt."

Larry and Theresa James said setting a positive example for his brother by not drinking much is exactly the sort of thing their son would do. Theresa James thought her son's recent college friends were negative influences. But he was still her motivated, hardworking son who cared about his future and his family.

James' first name, "L," is part of a family tradition. His father is Larry, and his father's father is Louis. Brandte said James was especially close with his father and his brother, Caleb.

Caleb was in hysterics when James died, Theresa James said. He has been withdrawn since his brother's death. He didn't speak at all at first.

Caleb James told his parents he couldn't see his older brother during the trip because they were separated by about 10 people. Taylor estimated the group totaled 15 to 20 people.

Larry James said Taylor told him that he did not perform a sobriety test on any other members of the group. James' death has been determined to be an accident.

With toxicology tests pending, it is unclear whether James drank as much as was indicated to Taylor.

Raymond Brandte said he doesn't know what to believe about the death of his friend. He would be surprised if James had hit his head in the shallow, calm waters. He doesn't see James as letting his partying get out of control, either. But James was strong and a good athlete who couldn't possibly drown for no reason.

"I would say everybody wants to know what happened," he said.

James' best friend, Eric Fershtman, 23, will speak at James' funeral. Throughout his life, he will tell people that James, the kid who wouldn't pass him the ball in middle-school basketball camp, was his best friend.

"I don't know what else to say," Fershtman said. He paused for several seconds.

"He was selfless. There was a greatness that you could see and people gravitated to."

The viewing will be held at 6 p.m. Friday in Ft. Lauderdale at the James C. Boyd Funeral Home, 2324 Sistrunk Blvd. The funeral service, also in Ft. Lauderdale, will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Redeeming Word Christian Center International, 2800 W Prospect Road.

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