- Associated Press - Saturday, July 15, 2017

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - The characters in Gary Evans‘ first book are fictional, but the places and events will be eerily familiar to readers from La Crosse.

Evans, a former journalist, Winona State administrator and cable television executive, has written a mystery novel set in La Crosse about a pair of detectives investigating a series of young men who drowned in the Mississippi River, the La Crosse Tribune (https://bit.ly/2tc28HH ) reported.

Set in 2011, “Death by Drowning” begins with the discovery of a college student in the Mississippi River, the city’s 15th college-age male to drown after a night of drinking in as many years. When detectives assigned to the case discover the victim had been injected with anesthesia, they begin reviewing the files and conclude there’s a serial killer at large.

The trail leads the gumshoes to Julie Sonoma, a physician’s assistant in Arlington Heights, Ill., who has spent the past 14 years mourning the death of her boyfriend - the first drowning victim - and raising their son.

The investigation takes some unexpected turns, and the suspect does not fit the typical serial killer type.

Evans said he had no outline or ending in mind when he started the book, though he has long been drawn to La Crosse’s real river drownings, which began in 1997.

“It was one of those topics that swirled around in my head,” he said. “A nagging, itching thing that said this might lend itself to a story.”

Over the past two decades, 11 college-age men have drowned in the Mississippi and Black rivers after being separated from their friends, spawning numerous conspiracy theories. Some have speculated there is a serial killer - or gang of killers - offing dozens of young men throughout the Midwest and leaving behind drawings of smiley faces; others posit the ghost of a 19th century steamboat victim is luring the victims into the water.

But local, state and FBI detectives have identified a much simpler cause: intoxication. All the men who drowned had blood alcohol levels between 2.4 and 5.25 times the legal limit for driving a car.

Evans thinks there is something more nefarious at work.

“I just believe there were too many and the timing was such that I thought there had to be something more than just accidental deaths, as they were ruled,” he said.

The events of the book are made up, but Evans said he drew on his own memory for the settings, and even a few names.

Evans add, “I gave my son” - Merchants Bank president Greg Evans - “a little jab by naming his wife as the president of the bank.”

While “Death by Drowning” is his first foray into fiction, Evans, 76, is no stranger to writing.

The Alma native was hired right out of high school in 1959 as a part-time sports writer at the Winona Daily News. Evans had stints at papers in Albert Lea and Minneapolis - where his duties included editing legendary sports columnist Sid Hartman - but spent most of the next three decades at the Daily News, serving as news editor, managing editor and marketing director.

He left the news business in 1987 to serve as vice president for university relations at Winona State University and retired in 2012 after 14 years as president and CEO of HBC, a Winona-based cable broadcasting company.

Evans said he began writing the book one Saturday morning in August 2014, shortly after the first of two interim stints at his former WSU position, and finished his first draft the same day WSU asked him to return in 2015.

“I just got an urge to start writing a book,” he said. “I think I’ve always been a storyteller.”

Since finishing “Death by Drowning” - which goes on sale Tuesday - Evans has completed two sequels (spoiler alert: the killer gets away) and is at work on a fourth book, which is set in Winona and was spawned by stories of moonshiners he heard from his father and father-in-law. He hopes the second book will be available for sale later this year.

Now almost two years into his third attempt at retirement, Evans plans to continue writing.

“Somebody told me today I will never be retired,” he said. “Retirement is not fun.”

___

Information from: La Crosse Tribune, https://www.lacrossetribune.com


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