Jesse Watlington's lightning death: A terrible story with many sides

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Southwest Florida Christian Academy’s lightning detector was inside the school when 11-year-old middle school football player Jesse Watlington was struck by lightning last October.

And no coaches were on the practice field with Watlington or his teammates when it happened.

Those are among the details that emerged from the depositions of six football coaches taken in the multimillion lawsuit that pits Watlington’s parents against the school and its affiliated church, McGregor Baptist.

Watlington died Oct. 7 in a Tampa hospital, 20 minutes after being removed from life support and four days after the lightning strike.

“I lost my only son because of their gross negligence,” said Charles Watlington, Jesse’s father, who released the documents to the media this week.

“All I want is justice for my son. I don’t care about the dollar amount. I want the truth to come out, and I want to make sure my son is the last kid struck in Florida and killed by lightning.”

The defendants have countered that they had no control over the cause of Watlington’s death, referring to it as an act of God. The case has yet to come to trial.

A secretary at the law office of Craig Ferrante, the lead attorney representing Southwest Florida Christian and McGregor Baptist, said Wednesday that Ferrante had no comment about the coaches’ depositions.

In the lawsuit, filed six weeks after their son’s death, the Watlingtons claim there were dark storm clouds in the area around the school when Jesse and his middle school teammates were instructed to go on the practice field.

That same day, McGregor Baptist senior pastor Richard Powell told The News-Press the lightning that struck Watlington came out of nowhere and that it was “a beautiful, blue sky day.” At the time, Powell also said Southwest Florida Christian had no type of lightning sensor. The next day, he said the school did in fact have a lightning detector outside at the time of the strike, attributing the discrepancy to a miscommunication.

“We feel our preparedness and care of our kids is beyond the call of duty,“ Powell told The News-Press on Oct. 4. “All of the systems we have were in place.”

Wess Jacobs, a volunteer varsity assistant football coach and a former deacon at McGregor Baptist, disputed Powell’s account of the weather during questioning by the Watlingtons’ attorney, Willie Gary.

“At best it was a cloudy day. At worst it was thunderstorms coming,” said Jacobs, who added that he drove through a rainstorm that ended minutes before arriving at Southwest Florida Christian that afternoon.

Jacobs said that when Watlington and other sixth-grade players were on the practice field, he had just retrieved the lightning detector from an office in the building and switched it on. Moments later he heard a “building-shaking boom.”

“I know the lightning meter screamed at that point,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs and Southwest Florida Christian varsity football coach and athletic director Mark Ackerman said the detector never made it to the field that day.

Ackerman also testified that Southwest Florida Christian doesn’t require its coaches to be certified in CPR. The first coach who reached Watlington after he was struck, volunteer middle school assistant Jason Richardson, said he doesn’t know CPR and that after calling 911, the only thing he did for Watlington was to lift his head off the muddy field.

Jacobs, whose 13-year-old son Noah was outside with Watlington, said his son told him he saw Richardson talking on a cellphone in his truck, which was parked near the football field, when Watlington was struck.

No other coaches were on the field at the time.

“Those young men shouldn’t have been out on that field unsupervised,” Jacobs said. “Those young men shouldn’t have been out there without a lightning detector on an obviously cloudy day.”

Jordan Lyerly, a sixth-grade teacher at the school and an assistant middle school football coach, said he was walking on a path toward the practice field and was about a quarter-mile away when he saw a bolt strike nearby.

“I knew it was close, but I, you know, was not thinking that it had struck a student,” Lyerly said.

Lyerly headed under a nearby awning and began speaking with Matt Baker, another assistant football coach. About a minute later, Lyerly said a student told them, “I think one of your players is down.”

Lyerley estimated he and Baker reached Watlington around five minutes after he saw the lightning bolt. Both began performing CPR.

Head middle school football coach Jeffrey Beach testified that he was walking out to the field behind the last of the middle school football players exiting the school when Watlington was struck.

Beach, whose son Viktor is an eighth-grade football player at Southwest Florida Christian, told Gary he didn’t think it was necessary for a football coach to be trained in CPR or for a lightning detector to be on the field during practice.

“That’s my personal opinion,” he said.

Jacobs said that while players know to head for cover if they see lightning, it’s up to the coaches to ensure they do that.

“Because you’re an adult, and you have the authority to look out for these kids, and that’s a pretty big responsibility when people trust you with their children.”

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