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Drowning reinforces reservoir concerns

Man's leap over fence shows storage facilities' vulnerability, city says

An apparent suicide early Thursday in Mount Tabor Park's upper reservoir raises questions about reservoir security measures and may strengthen the city's resolve to cover the reservoirs.

A Portland police spokesman said both a private security guard and police officers talked to the man shortly before he climbed over a fence, jumped into the reservoir and drowned.

He was identified by the state medical examiner's office as a transient named Glenn Russell Behnke, 45. Behnke, who has family members living in the Portland area, died of asphyxiation by drowning.

Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a police spokesman, said police have had numerous contacts with Behnke, including arrests for narcotics and intimidation, but there were no outstanding warrants at the time of the incident.

Mayor Vera Katz declined to comment on the particulars of the incident, saying she had not been briefed. But, she said: 'This incident illustrates that our open reservoirs are vulnerable to public safety and security hazards. That is why we are having a dialogue about the reservoirs now.'

The City Council has approved a plan to replace the three Mount Tabor reservoirs with buried water tanks.

Neighbors who oppose the plan fear that Thursday's incident will doom their efforts to stop the city from removing the reservoirs.

'It's very upsetting,' said Floy Jones, a Mount Tabor resident who has volunteered with a group called Friends of the Reservoirs to preserve the historic reservoirs. 'We were just getting going, and this is going to kill the whole thing.'

Schmautz said a private security guard hired by the city spotted a man acting strangely near the reservoir shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday. The guard called police, who dispatched a Southeast Precinct patrol car to the scene.

Schmautz said police officers arrived minutes later and approached the man, who was uncooperative and did not give the officers his name.

The man turned and walked away after the officers told him to leave the park, Schmautz said. The officers then saw the man climb the wrought iron, 8-foot-high fence that surrounds the 69-foot-deep reservoir and jump into the water, Schmautz said.

The officers said the man quickly sank beneath the water's surface.

Asked why the officers did not escort the man away from the reservoir, Schmautz said: 'They asked him to leave, and he was leaving. The courts have ruled that you can't arrest someone after they've agreed to leave.'

Mount Tabor Park is closed to the public between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m daily.

A parks bureau spokeswoman said transients frequently sleep in the park in spite of the nightly curfew.

Police called the city fire bureau at 1:50 a.m. for help in recovering the body. According to spokesman Neil Heesacker, the bureau's dive team was assembled at the reservoir and recovered the body at 4:24 a.m.

The water bureau isolated the reservoir from the water system between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., said bureau spokeswoman Ross Walker. 'We have no reason to believe there is any problem with water quality,' he said.

The water bureau began draining the reservoir at 7 a.m. and expects to complete the process late Saturday or early Sunday, Walker said. The reservoir will be cleaned and then refilled.

In the meantime, additional security guards have been deployed on site.

Security at the three reservoirs Ñ built in 1911 Ñ has been a city priority since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. To prevent possible contamination of the open reservoirs, the water bureau contracted with First Response, a private security firm, to provide 24-hour patrols seven days a week, at a cost of $50,000 per month.

Behnke was spotted Thursday by a First Response employee.

The park's lower reservoir was in the news lately when approximately 800 people circled it during a Jan. 5 protest organized by Friends of the Reservoir. Several opponents testified against the plan before the council on Wednesday.

Contact Jim Redden at jredden@portlandtribune and Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..