INDEX — Some days, Marvin Shelby drives to Eagle Falls to talk to his son.
The young man’s body likely is still in the water along U.S. 2, pinned underneath a rock shelf by the water current. Friends say they saw Devin Shelby on July 29, tall and skinny, fall into the rapids at the top of the waterfalls. He struggled briefly, trying to grab 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.
Marvin Shelby makes the trip up from his home in Tacoma so he can feel closer to his son. He tells his son how everyone is doing, how family misses him. “Pray for Devin” is spray-painted on rocks nearby. Afterward, the father said he stops in Sultan to grab a burger on the way home.
The visits have become kind of a ritual for Marvin Shelby. If, or when, his son is found, he said he’ll keep returning to place flowers at the site on the 29th of every month.
For two months, search and rescue teams with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office have attempted to find Devin, with no luck. Search missions have been scenes of grim contrast: Revelers jumping in the water, yelling with joy, as divers float by with their heads underwater looking for a young man’s body. Deputies used drones to look downriver, where on sunny days they could use the camera to see through the sparkling clear Skykomish River.
Sometimes, the father will be there, too, to check in with deputies and to scold the swimmers for putting themselves in the same precarious situation as his son.
“We’ve all been out there multiple times and see people with their children, and I beg them, say, ‘Hey, my son is right there in that water, dead,’” Marvin Shelby said. “They don’t care.”
Divers went to Eagle Falls about 20 times, sheriff’s spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe wrote in an email. It wasn’t until mid-September, when the rapids slowed enough, that dive teams could begin exploring the pools of water where they believe Devin is stuck.
One of their last good opportunities came on Sept. 17. Perhaps for the first time, no one was around to see Sgt. Greg Sanders don his diving equipment on the side of the road. Wildfire smoke had, at last, kept the crowds away.
The dive lasted just minutes. Sanders, tethered to a rope held by another deputy, was able to explore underneath some rocks and check off another spot where Devin wasn’t. But it wasn’t long until the foam-white rapids erased his visibility.
With heavy rains sweeping across the region last week, their best chance at finding Devin may be behind them.
“It’s frustrating,” Sanders said.
He said he wants to bring the family some sense of closure.
It’s possible that Devin could naturally float up on his own, as water levels rise during the winter. Often bodies will rise to the surface, Sanders said, but because Devin was so lean, he was less likely to come up soon.
Devin had a whole life ahead of him, his father said. 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 often could be seen on his longboard, bombing down winding streets with his friends.
“Everywhere, if there was a road, he had a longboard,” Marvin Shelby said.
Even when he could drive, Devin would take his board to work or school — even if it often meant shamefully calling his father later for a ride, either because it started raining or because something broke. Devin also loved first-person shooter video games. Shelby said he now misses the sounds of his son yelling at the TV.
Just a few months before Devin’s death, his father said he bought his son a 2004 Ford Mustang convertible.
“He couldn’t even have a speck of dirt on it, he took a lot of pride keeping it clean,” the father said.
An old Army buddy of Marvin Shelby’s taught Devin how to swim one summer at American Lake, in Lakewood. Ever since, Devin loved being by the water.
Marvin Shelby has lived in Washington for 25 years, and has been all over the state, but hadn’t heard of Eagle Falls until Devin went there this summer. Like many others, Marvin Shelby said his son learned of the swimming hole from TikTok, where videos have gained tens of thousands of views, with the most popular accruing more than 140,000 views.
“So there’s this place in WA…” the June 20 video begins. “Literally on the side of HWY 2… Its called Eagle Falls, WA. You’re welcome.”
Clips are spliced in of people resting by the river and jumping off cliffsides, accompanied by blue skies and lush green trees. A remix of the song “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I plays in the background. It’s a scene that would be hard to resist, especially for a socially starved population in a global pandemic, during a hot and dry summer.
Joe Neal, a U.S. Forest Service ranger with the Skykomish district, said Eagle Falls creates a headache every year, but this summer has been especially bad. Crews with the sheriff’s office and Sky Valley Fire have had to rescue several people, including a group of 16 who crossed the river at the falls but were too afraid to cross back. Another young man, Peter Sei, 32, of Tacoma, drowned there in June. At least four others have been pulled from the water and revived by bystanders, according to the sheriff’s office.
Marvin Shelby said he wants the place shut down, with barriers and signs telling people not to go swimming.
“It’s just a dangerous place, and I don’t see any way they would make it safer,” he said. “I can’t see that. There’s been too many people that died, and nobody’s doing anything about it.”
Neal said it would be a difficult proposition. While the forest service can technically shut some places down, enforcement would be another question. The 325,000-acre Skykomish Ranger District has just one law enforcement officer currently, but he’s still going through training. The district has had to rely on enforcement from the sheriff’s office and Washington State Patrol in the meantime. Eagle Falls sits alongside a major highway with plenty of access, making enforcement a round-the-clock chore — and likely too big of an ask for any law enforcement agency.
“It’d be a little different if it was back down a dirt road somewhere where we can monitor and control access,” Neal said.
Some steps have been taken to discourage crowds, with the help of the Washington State Department of Transportation, Neal said. New signs discourage people from crowding their cars alongside U.S. 2, which earlier in the summer had caused traffic backups and other safety hazards. A stretch of the road has been turned into a tow-away zone.
Neal said he couldn’t be sure how effective those measures were, as it wasn’t long until the smoke and then the rain arrived and acted as a more natural deterrent for would-be thrill seekers. He said the forest service and sheriff’s office will continue to talk about what to do with Eagle Falls before next summer.
Marvin Shelby said so far he hasn’t been satisfied with the forest service’s response.
“Honestly, excuse my French, but I think it’s time for them to get up off their (expletive) and do something about it,” he said. “Because God forbid it happens to one of their children. Then they’re going to want to do something about it, because it affects them personally.”
A GoFundMe to help with the search and rescue efforts for Devin Shelby has been established.
Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @zachariahtb.