Witnesses saw Jacquelyn Watts, 33, trying to catch missing dog near river before she went missing
An Indianapolis woman and animal lover whose body was found Saturday on a river sandbar died from accidental drowning after apparently getting swept under water while chasing a lost dog, PEOPLE confirms.
Authorities say they may never know exactly what happened to Jacquelyn Watts, 33, but an eyewitness reported a woman matching Watts’ description on Friday afternoon next to the Flatrock River in Columbus, where the witness said Watts was trying to catch a small white dog that had been reported missing earlier.
The Bartholomew County Coroner issued its findings Monday. The missing dog, Ringo, was found dead a day later on the river’s shore.
“I think we can take some peace knowing that she was trying to help,” Columbus Police Lt. Matt Harris tells PEOPLE. “She obviously loved animals a lot, and that’s the one thing we continue to hear, that she would do anything for animals.”
“For someone with such a big heart like Jackie had, it’s sad.”
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Harris said an investigation tracked events starting at about 2 p.m. Friday, when a witness observed a woman who matched Watts’ description chasing a small white dog in the area of 23rd and Washington streets in Columbus.
A short time later, about 2:15 p.m., police received a call about an abandoned vehicle on Riverside Drive, adjacent to the river. Officers who responded at 4:51 p.m. found Watts’ white BMW with its motor running, its emergency flashers on, and Watts’ keys, purse and cell phone all inside the vehicle.
Moments later, at 4:56 p.m., officers received a report from Watts’ family that she had not returned to her home in Indianapolis after traveling to Columbus to drop off two dogs and a rabbit at two separate residences.
“We have no witnesses that actually saw her go into the water,” says Harris. The river itself was bloated and carried a strong current due to recent rains. “With both her and the dog being deceased, we believe that Jackie did go into the river,” he says. “The coroner’s report affirms what our investigators believe, that she accidentally drowned. They saw nothing that would lead them to believe that anything criminal occurred.”
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Authorities searched the area through Friday night and until about 4 a.m. Saturday with boats, ATVs, two helicopters and foot patrols. Searchers resumed at daybreak Saturday, and located Watts’ body shortly after 8 a.m. on the sandbar about three or four blocks downriver from where her car was found.
“Investigators believe Mrs. Watts was attempting to rescue a dog that had previously been reported missing when she entered the river and drowned,” said a statement from the coroner’s office. “The dog — and older dog with vision impairment — was found deceased on the river bank Sunday morning, south of the sandbar where Mrs. Watts’ body was found.”
A Livelong Love of Animals
Harris says so many people in Columbus, where Watts grew up, turned up to help in the Friday night search that they had to be turned away, partly because of the dangerous conditions of the river and riverbank. “That’s a testament to the type of person she was, that this many people cared about her and wanted to help find her and bring her home,” he says.
An online obituary posted by her family notes she is survived by her husband Michael, whom she married May 14, 2011; her parents; a sister, brother-in-law and their two children; her in-laws; and a sister- and brother-in-law and their son.
“It has lifted up our hearts to see that Jackie has touched so many lives,” the family said in a statement.
“Jackie’s compassion for others was evident throughout her life. From her work as a teaching assistant in the Indianapolis Public Schools, as events coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Indianapolis, and through her vocation as a esthetician, Jackie saw beauty and value in everyone. She was an inspiration to those that knew her. Always placing others before herself, she lived and loved with great humility.”
“At a young age, Jackie developed a love for animals,” the family said. “To say that this was Jackie’s passion would be an understatement. Jackie volunteered with the Kentuckiana Boxer Rescue and Indy Claw Animal Rescue where she was a member of the board of directors. She also fostered multiple dogs and rabbits.”
“She cared deeply about the well-being of animals. If she believed she could help an animal in need, she was going to do so without hesitation. We know that Jackie gave her life for what she believed in.”