About a month after moving down here, Lee Deitrick died from drowning after jumping off the fishing pier in Eastpoint Monday afternoon, July 17.
His 33-year-old body, much of it expertly tattooed by his own hand, was recovered by sheriff’s deputies a few hours later, after searching for it together with officers from the Fish and vWildlife Conservation Commission.
The sheriff’s office had been en route ever since dispatch got a call from bystanders who “saw him acting erratically,” said Sheriff A.J. Smith. “Then a second call came in that he had jumped off the bridge.”
The sheriff said Deitrick was drinking a lot that afternoon. Daniel Gaddis, a cousin who grew up like a brother to Deitrick in their hometown of Lewisville in the Canton, Ohio area, does not believe intoxication was the cause.
“The autopsy said he had less than two beers in his system,” said Gaddis, adding that the Eastpoint Beer Company, where Dietrick had been earlier, told him he hadn’t ordered any alcohol there.
Dietrick’s colorful life, both literally with his artistry and figuratively based on some wild choices he made in his life, was also marked by “manic bipolar disorder,” as Gaddis described it.
“We don’t think it was an episode or anything,” he said. “We believe he jumped out thinking he could swim back.”
What actually happened is based in part on the observations of an 11-year-old boy who witnessed it.
“At the Brewery and after that down at Millender Park, he was just sitting by the water,” Gaddis said he was told. “From what the little boy said, he was jogging up and down the pier, doing pushups, acting normal.”
Deitrick asked the boy if he had caught any fish, and the boy replied that he hadn’t, that it “was just hot out there.”
“‘Yeah, it is hot out here,” Deitrick replied. “I think I’m going to take a swim.”
Gaddis said he and his cousin had joked before about fishing on the St. George Island side, and how long it would take to swim back to shore.
“He took his shoes off and left his money,” said the sheriff.
The boy yelled down to Deitrick to float on his back, but when he slipped below the surface, he did not return. “He was taken under by the undertow,” said Gaddis.
Deitrick not long before had finished a short stint in an Ohio prison, the details of which have been expunged from the online record. Gaddis brought him down to Eastpoint about a month ago, and helped get him a job as a cook at Mango Mike’s where Gaddis works.
He said Deitrick was emerging from his shell in recent days, and was set on saving money to set himself up as a tattoo artist.
“He wanted to get away from people and get a fresh start on life,” Gaddis said. “He was saving up to get all of his own equipment and start his own thing. He was working at turning his life around.”
Tattoo ink ran deep in Deitrick’s blood vessels, and he was highly regarded for his work, some of which he had done on his own chest and neck with the assistance of a mirror. He had studied graphic design and 3D animation at Stark State College in Canton.
“Lee expressed his creativity through art and tattoos,” read his obituary. “He loved to draw and showed talent beyond anyone’s belief.”
“Once they had seen his work and saw how he worked, they would never let anyone else do it but him,” Gaddis said. “His art was so amazing.”
When his mother, Traci Briggs passed away, he added an eye tattoo, Gaddis said, noting also that Deitrick was devoted to his son Canaan, and was sending him money.
“Everyone who knew Lee, knew how much he loved his son,” read his obituary. “He was proud to be his dad.”
Deitrick’s wielding of the tattoo needle afforded him unwanted national attention when the media in 2010 picked up the story that he had tattooed the tiny letter A on the bottom of a 19-month old girl.
“He was fresh 18, and the aunt of the child brought her over,” Gaddis said. “He got bashed a lot harder than he should have. He took the whole rap; he didn’t want the mother of the child getting in trouble. It was all because of some stupid idea they had as kids.”
The memories of Deitrick’s family and friends is a more uplifting one, even coming from a man he shared a cell with for a year or so in prison.
“After he was released no matter what he had going on in his crazy life, he always managed to get back in touch with me, his older brother in prison as he called me,” wrote Shaun Owens, on Deitrick’s obituary page. “That said a lot about him to me because hardly anyone ever gets out of prison and actually gets back in touch with people in prison. Even if they do, it’s short lived.
“In prison I always thought of him as above all loyal and caring,” Owens wrote. “Those thoughts continued when he got out ‘cause when he would get a hold of me, he would always make sure to say ‘I love and miss you brother.’
“He always ended his letters and emails to me with “Love and Respect,” he wrote.