On the morning the U.S. Coast Guard in Astoria received a frantic mayday call from a yacht sinking near the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River, John “Branch” Walton was in his fifth and final day of advanced training as a rescue swimmer.
Walton and his classmates leapt at the chance to respond. But it was a quick game of rock-paper-scissors that settled which swimmer would plunge into the churning, frigid waters nearby. Walton won. He was the least experienced of the bunch.
“They all could have got it done, but they let me go,” Walton said. “I was kind of in disbelief, like, ‘Oh, is this really happening?’”
Unbeknownst to the 22-year-old who learned to swim only after joining the Coast Guard a few years earlier, he’d soon execute a very difficult rescue seamlessly. And he would be thrust into the national limelight as millions viewed video of his first real-world rescue, taken from a camera mounted to the Coast Guard helicopter that flew him to the imperiled boater. Walton was widely lauded for his courage and agility.
It wasn’t until later that day that Walton and others in the Coast Guard would learn the man he’d pulled from the stormy waters allegedly had stolen the $160,000 yacht and drawn the attention of Astoria police for placing a dead fish on the porch of the famous “Goonies” house days earlier.
Two 47-foot Coast Guard boats were the first to respond to the yacht’s 10 a.m. Feb. 3 mayday call. But crew members quickly realized they couldn’t attempt a rescue by boat. The seas were far too rough, and if they got too close the waves might slam their vessels into the disabled yacht as they attempted to bring the man onboard. Instead, they tossed a life jacket on a weighted line to the man, the yacht’s sole occupant. He slipped it on.
Already on the way was a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. On board were flight mechanics Joseph Ivy and Kyle Turcotte and pilots Tripp Haas and Will Sirokman. Then there was Walton, wearing flippers, a mask, snorkel and a dry suit.
Walton said he felt secure attempting the rescue because his four companions were all experienced instructors from his previous week of training, and all the skills he needed were still fresh in his mind.
“I knew I was in good hands,” Walton said. “I had an amazing crew.”
Around 10:40 a.m., the crew lowered Walton by cable into 20-foot swells where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean, an area dubbed the “Graveyard of the Pacific” for the many hundreds of boats sunk and lives lost over the centuries.
There, miles west of Astoria, bobbed the disabled 35-foot yacht.
Walton unclipped himself from the cable and then bolted toward the yacht. Within seconds, he was treading water, trying to persuade the man who was standing at the stern to jump toward him, he said. But just then a powerful wave was forming. The man pointed at it, and Walton ducked underwater in an attempt to avoid the churn. It’s a move often used by surfers to avoid the full force of breaking waves.
“The wave was pretty violent; there’s not much you can do other than just kind of ride it out,” said Walton, likening the experience to tumbling around in a washing machine.
When Walton surfaced, he regained his bearings and saw the man a ways off. His helicopter crew lowered the cable and hook. He clipped in, and they swiftly flew him over to the man’s new location.
“They did a fantastic job of swooping right in and dropping that hook down,” Walton said. “I hooked in, and they just put me right on top of him.”
Walton and the crew figure that before Walton ever got to him, the boat that gave the man a life jacket saved his life. Otherwise, he likely wouldn’t have resurfaced once the wave hit him.
Walton said the man was eager to be rescued.
“He asked ‘What do I do?’” Walton recounted. “And I yelled at him, I said ‘Nothing. Don’t do anything. Just breathe.’”
Walton slipped a sling around him, and the helicopter crew hoisted them both to safety.
Once on the chopper, the man put his hand to his forehead and caught his breath. After Walton and one of the flight mechanics handed him blankets, the man laid down on the aircraft’s floor and pulled them over his head. He gave a name they would later learn was fake, then didn’t say much of anything, Walton said.
Meanwhile, the flight mechanic congratulated Walton on his first rescue – lifting both his arms to offer Walton two high-fives. Coast Guard video shows a beaming Walton.
It was several hours later that authorities learned the man’s real name: Jericho Wolf Labonte. But that was after the helicopter landed, an ambulance rushed him to Astoria’s Columbia Memorial Hospital to be treated for mild hypothermia and the 35-year-old was released into the community on his own.
Police had been looking for Labonte since Feb. 1, after the owners of the famed house from the 1985 movie, “The Goonies,” reported that a man fitting Labonte’s description left a dead fish on their front porch and covered the lenses of their security cameras in stickers. An Astoria resident also had reported Labonte posted a video of himself on Facebook chanting lines from the movie and walking up to the porch to show the dead fish.
As local police delved into who Labonte was, they learned authorities in Victoria, British Columbia, had issued five warrants for his arrest for alleged crimes that include “harassment” and “mischief.”
After the Coast Guard pulled Labonte from the mouth of the Columbia on Feb. 3, they learned he’d also allegedly stolen the yacht, the “Sandpiper,” from the Port of Astoria.
Police found and arrested Labonte about nine hours after the rescue, at a homeless shelter in nearby Seaside. Clatsop County prosecutors plan to charge Labonte with various crimes – possibly boat theft, criminal mischief and endangering the life of Walton by prompting the rescue – but say they haven’t yet because he’s currently being held at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma.
For Walton, that’s all beside the point. He was there to do what he’d trained for – save lives.
Walton had moved to Oregon only last year from North Carolina. He wasn’t aware of the mouth of the Columbia’s morbid history. And before he enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, he had trouble making it from one side of a pool to the other.
“Before I joined, I definitely needed some help,” Walton said. “I couldn’t swim 50 yards, really.”
Getting to the point of expert swimmer and rescuer took months of hard work in the water and the classroom.
Training to become a rescue swimmer is so rigorous only about half of those who attempt the certification pass, said Coast Guard spokesperson Diolanda Caballero.
Each month, swimmers must pass a physical fitness test that includes at least 50 push-ups, a 500-yard crawl stroke in less than 12 minutes, swimming underwater for 25 yards and towing “a buddy” across 200 yards of water.
They also must train to become emergency medical technicians.
After earning his initial certification, Walton enrolled in advanced rescue swimmer training along the Oregon coast, chosen because of its particularly unforgiving waters.
Over the course of five days, swimmers work with helicopter crews to practice plunging themselves into heavy surf and plucking each other out. They dangle along cliff faces to practice vertical rescues and sometimes even swim into sea caves to prepare for every possible scenario.
Brian Kirkendall is a fellow rescue swimmer and the lead instructor at Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, where Walton spent the week training before the Feb. 3 rescue. Kirkendall said despite the cloud created by Labonte’s alleged shenanigans, the rescue was an example of the Coast Guard holding true to one of its missions.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to see our next generation coming up, willing to put it all on the line for a complete stranger,” Kirkendall said, adding he didn’t care about Labonte’s backstory.
“If someone needs help,” he said, “we’ll bring them back.”
In 2022, the Coast Guard district covering Oregon and Washington responded to more than 600 calls for help on the water. Calls include those as minor as a mariner’s emergency distress beacon mistakenly going off to as major as another dramatic helicopter rescue that took place just last week, about 30 miles north of Astoria, near Willapa Bay, Washington. The Coast Guard pulled two soaked men from an inflatable rescue raft in the dark of night after their 46-foot crabbing vessel sunk, but a third man was lost at sea.
The Coast Guard is undergoing a historic lull in recruitment, amid a nationwide labor shortage. In response, it has lowered barriers to recruitment, including by raising the maximum enlistment age to 42. Coast Guard officials hope stories such as Walton’s inspire others to join.
After Walton plucked Labonte from the mouth of the Columbia, he texted his mom the video and then phoned her “because I didn’t think it was going to get out or anything.”
Walton cracks up as he recalls how his mom had some thoughts to share about her son swimming so precariously close to the yacht: “She just said, ‘Maybe be a little farther away from the boat next time.’”