It’s been 19 years since the Kern River took Ann Bailey’s 7-year-old granddaughter, Micaela Sherre Schafer, and Micaela’s dad and cousin — all three on the same day.
Just like this year, 1998 was a huge water year. The river’s banks were overflowing, the undercurrents treacherous, the waters deceptively inviting.
“This year has been hard,” Bailey said. “All these people dying in the river. All the bad memories come flooding back.”
When she hears about people drowning in the Kern, Bailey wants to shout a message to everyone: “Please stay out,” she said, “so your loved ones don’t go through what we have gone through.”
The family’s ordeal began on the Fourth of July 1998. Micaela’s mom and dad, LeDena and Brett Schafer, were separated. But the couple had a friendly child-rearing attitude and Micaela regularly went back and forth from and to the nearby homes of each parent, Bailey said.
On that day, Brett had Micaela. His 18-year-old nephew, Micaela’s cousin, Joshua Patton, had been living at his home, and apparently the three of them took Brett’s 1987 blue Toyota pickup to buy some fireworks.
They never returned home.
Eventually, the pickup was found along the river near Stockdale Highway and Buena Vista Road. There was no sign of the missing trio.
“That was his fishing hole,” Bailey recalled. “That was considered a safe spot.”
Desperate for information, the family printed flyers with photos and descriptions of all three. “MISSING,” the headline screamed in block letters.
“We walked the river banks every day for a month,” Bailey said.
Brett’s body was found first, about two weeks after the threesome disappeared. Patton’s remains were located on Aug. 4, a full month into the search. Micaela was found soon afterward.
As she looked over old photos and newspaper clippings at her home in east Bakersfield, Bailey fought back tears.
The photos of the freckle-faced, red-headed girl only make the still grieving grandmother wonder what Micaela would look like today, at age 26, had she not been near the river that day.
“Her mom called her ‘Noonie’ because she loved noodles,” Baily remembered.
“She always had a smile.”
“Her mom was so torn up,” Bailey recalled. “She couldn’t talk to the media, so I had to. It wasn’t easy.”
Attempts to reach Micaela’s mom Thursday were unsuccessful.
Years later, the “fishing hole” is radically changed. The Park at Riverwalk and upscale retail has replaced the undeveloped area of yesteryear. But the river still takes its victims, already eight so far this year.
No one in the family knows exactly what happened, but one theory is that the river bank gave way, sending at least one of the three into the cold swift waters, with the other two attempting a rescue.
Authorities ruled out foul play.
The boys in the family stopped “tubing” the river after the tragedy. And most years, Bailey or her daughter place a small memorial in The Californian.
It always has two messages, the first, an ode to a beautiful little freckle-faced girl who left this earth too soon; the second a plea to would-be swimmers and river-goers to respect the awesome power of an ancient stream that grinds rocks into sand and steals children from their families.
“This is the last thing she gave me,” Bailey said of a gift she received from Micaela 20 years ago. The tiny doll has four facial expressions, and each July Fourth, Bailey turns the head to the doll’s crying face.
The doll is showing its age, but Bailey is not about to let it go.
“I just couldn’t get rid of it,” she said.