Deputy’s widow sues ExxonMobil over death

HIGHLANDS – The widow of a sheriff’s deputy claims in court that ExxonMobil and a public water district failed to warn about dangerous currents in a canal to a refinery, and her husband drowned when the water pushed him through a culvert.     

Eddie Wotipka’s widow, Karen, and their three children sued ExxonMobil and the San Jacinto River Authority in Harris County Court.     

”On or about June 10, 2010, Eddie Wotipka was a deputy sheriff with the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. While on duty, Deputy Wotipka either fell or jumped into a fresh water canal allegedly owned by the defendant San Jacinto River Authority,” according to the complaint. “This canal services the Exxon Mobil refinery located in Harris County, Texas.     

”Unbeknownst to Deputy Wotipka, pumps were turned on at the request of defendant ExxonMobil.”     

Karen Wotipka says the pumps caused a “dangerous, hidden condition” in which the surface water looked calm but a swift current ran beneath.     

”The swift water caused Deputy Wotipka to be pulled under the water in the canal,” the complaint states. “Karen Wotipka saw her husband’s dangerous situation and jumped into the canal to assist her husband; however, Mrs. Wotipka was immediately pulled under and almost drowned prior to being rescued.     

”Deputy Wotipka, after being pulled underwater, was propelled through a culvert which went under a roadway, causing his death.     

”Defendants knew or should have known about the dangerous condition caused by turning on the pumps.”     The Wotipkas seek damages for negligence and wrongful death.     They are represented by Michael McGown with Benckenstein, Norvell and Nathan of Beaumont.

Deputy Eddie Wotipka, 51, drowned in a canal near West Cedar Bayou and Lynchburg Road June 10, 2010. Wotipka had just arrived at his Highlands home from his evening shift as a patrol deputy in District 3 when neighbors alerted him to dogs near the canal not far from his home. Deputy Wotipka went to check on the situation his dog either fell or jumped into the water.

Neighbor Donna Watkins said she was driving by when she spotted the dogs near the canal and stopped. That’s when she saw Wotipka, who asked her to aim her headlights in his direction. But Watkins said before she could do it, she heard a splash.

“When I opened my door, I heard a splash, and then seconds later I heard him hollerin’ and heard another splash,” Watkins said.

Deputy Wotipka had taken off his weapon and radio and jumped into the water to try and save his dog.  He began to struggle in the rough waters so his wife, Karen, jumped in to try and save her husband. 

Watkins saw Wotipka go under, come up and go under again. She said he was holding the dog the entire time.

“He looked up at me and he never let go of his dog. And he took his last breath going under and that’s when he let go of the dog,” said Watkins. 

Watkins said she went to get her husband, and her daughter stayed by the water to try to calm the deputy’s wife, who was clinging to a piece of concrete.

“She was screaming, ‘I can’t! I can’t!’ And my daughter was constantly telling her, ‘Yes you can. My daddy’s gonna get you,’” Watkins said.

“Me and my son went over to where the lady was hanging onto the concrete and threw the rope and got her to put it over, put it under her arms, and we pulled her to the bank,” Steve Watkins said.

HCSO’s marine unit and dive team, with the assistance of the Houston Police Department’s helicopter, arduously searched for Deputy Wotipka for several hours. His body was located at approximately 5 a.m. some 100-150 feet from where he originally jumped in. The body of the dog was also recovered.

Deputy Wotipka had served with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office since 1993. He is survived by his wife and two children, ages 24 and 26.