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The Skykomish took him. His parents want him to be the last

The Daily Herald - 7/31/2021

INDEX — Marvin Shelby has accepted, as much as he can, that his son's body might never be recovered.

He said his son Devin is part of the water now at Eagle Falls. His DNA is intermingled with the Skykomish River. And as it moves with a life of its own, so too does it bring life to his son.

As a maintenance mechanic at the Seattle Veterans Administration Medical Center, Marvin Shelby will try to find excuses to work on the roof, where he can breathe fresh air and soak in the sun. It has become his place of meditation.

Up there, when he sees the Cascades in the distance, or a body of water, he's reminded of his son.

A year ago from Thursday, Devin was one of many who came to Eagle Falls after watching a viral TikTok video. It was the summer of a global pandemic, and much of Washington was still locked down. People were eager to do something, anything. The outdoors beckoned.

Friends saw him, tall and skinny, fall into the rapids at the top of the waterfalls that sunny day. He struggled briefly, trying to grab onto rocks, then went underwater in one of the pools below. He came back up once, apparently unconscious, then was sucked down again.

Devin, 21, was never seen again. The young man's body likely is still in the water along U.S. 2, pinned under a rock shelf by the water current.

The 21-year-old worked in security and landscaping. He hoped to attend Clover Park Technical College to learn to be a mechanic. He wanted to join the U.S. Army to tinker on tanks. He liked to longboard, play video games and work on cars.

"You have to live every second like it's your last, that's what Devin taught me," Marvin Shelby said.

On Thursday, Devin's parents, Marvin and Shawtue Shelby, and his younger brother Davionne drove from Tacoma to Eagle Falls, along with other family members, for a makeshift memorial.

They arrived in a Mustang convertible, the same one Devin took so much pride in keeping clean, the one his father had gifted him just months before he died. And they wore matching bright red shirts with a picture of Devin, a selfie, one of the last he took of himself. In it, he has a look that is somehow at once stern yet soft. He has a finger pressed up against his temple, as if he's planning something.

It's the same look that he would give his father, whether he was angry or happy, Marvin Shelby said.

He said on the outside, Devin looks calm, but underneath he's raging, like the river.

"It's flowing on the inside, it's wild — that's him," said Marvin Shelby, who now often talks in symbols and metaphors when thinking about his son.

Sgt. Greg Sanders, who leads the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Unit, was there, too. He said he has been out several times this year searching for Devin, but still has seen no sign of him.

It has been impossible, even when the river was at its lowest late last summer, to effectively search the spot where Devin was dragged under by an eddy. The water there curdles foam white, making it impossible to see. Last September, it took two guys during a search to pull out Sanders, who wanted to keep pushing further.

Sanders said he's frustrated, still, to know that Devin is possibly so close, but just out of reach. He hates this place now. On Thursday, he turned his head every time he heard a big splash, or heard someone yell, wondering if it would turn into another water rescue.

The sergeant said he'll keep looking for Devin, probably until he retires, if that's what it takes.

After exchanging pleasantries, the group crossed the street — not yet full of cars, but bound to be soon, as a heat warning would take effect that afternoon. They headed down to the water, where a silence fell over the family that usually was quick to laugh.

On a nearby rock, spray paint with the words "Pray 4 Devin" has faded.

An aunt offered some words. She spoke about how she missed Devin, her little baby, and how hard this past year has been.

"Let it out," Marvin Shelby said. "Let it all out."

They handed out roses and tossed them into the river, one by one. They watched as the flowers were carried downstream.

Tears flowed freely.

Devin's mother, Shawtue Shelby, sat down, bawling. Her husband leaned down to hug her, murmuring words of comfort.

Then, he went to talk up his other son, Davionne, to make sure he was OK.

Marvin Shelby insisted on positivity on this anniversary of sadness. They would all come out of this stronger, he said. They would all love each other harder. They would become a better family.

Around them, people reveled in the sun, shirtless, in bathing suits. Dogs splashed in the water, as baby salmon wiggled their way toward the sea.

That's the cruel irony of this place. It offers so many so much joy, and others so much grief.

The river doesn't care.

Marvin Shelby said he'd like to see changes to this place, to prevent more deaths. Last year he called for it to be shut down entirely, but now he understands how unlikely that might be. He wants his son to be the last life lost here.

Last year, new signs and road stripes were added to discourage people from crowding parked cars along U.S. 2. But the crowds still come, particularly on hot days, Sanders said.

So far, no one has died this year at Eagle Falls. But last weekend, not far downriver, two men drowned at Sunset Falls, and in June, closer to Sultan, a 4-year-old boy wearing a lifejacket died in the water, serving as a grim reminder how dangerous this river can be.

On Thursday, it wasn't long before Marvin Shelby signaled it was time to leave. He was getting anxious being here, and it appeared everyone else had cried as much as they could bear.

They climbed up the short steep slippery hill to U.S. 2. Cars droned by.

Before crossing the street to go back to his deceased son's Mustang, Marvin Shelby turned around.

"This is the last time we're coming up here," he said, as much to his family as to himself. "We're going to leave it all in that river."