This photo may have been one of the last taken of a Georgia high school freshman in Belize in February of 2016. Within hours of this photo, Tomari Aliijah Jackson died in a drowning accident on a school trip to Belize.
Ben Brasch, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
No one helped Tomari Jackson as he screamed for his life while drowning in a Central American river.
With 31 other Georgia high school students — some within arm’s reach — nine chaperones and Jackson pleading “Help! Help!” the 14-year-old still died on that school trip to Belize just over a year ago.
Fighting to stay alive, Tomari, a student at North Cobb High School in Cobb County, Georgia, was close enough to splash a girl in a red checkered swimsuit. She laughed it off. He went back under water.
Then he reached out to grab the muddy riverbank where others were playing. No one saw him. No one heard him.
But his mother heard.
Adell Forbes heard his chilling cries and gurgling before the waters took her only child. Two months ago, she helplessly watched video footage from the camera that had been strapped to his head, recording her boy’s last moment in that river in February of 2016.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw a short clip of the video Friday shown by the attorneys representing Forbes in her lawsuit against the Cobb school district and all nine chaperones of the international studies magnet trip along with the trip organizer and his company.
The attorneys cited legal reasons for not releasing the video, but they were also thinking of Forbes.
“She’s not prepared to turn on the TV and see her son dying,” said Tricia “CK” Hoffler, one of the lawyers.
The suit alleges that the staff, the school and the owner of Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, who planned the trip, didn’t do enough to prevent Tomari’s death or keep an eye on the kids, none of whom were wearing life vests.
Cobb schools declined to comment and Monkey Bay was unavailable for comment.
Because of the lawsuit, when Forbes received the camera containing answers to almost all of the mother’s questions filling her head over the year about how her boy died, she wasn’t allowed to watch it.
No, she had to take the FedEx package to her battery of attorneys who recorded the opening of the parcel so they could prove in court the footage had not been tampered with. And for those same legal reasons, they had to film Forbes as she watched her son die.
“She just wanted to know what happened to her child, and the video gave her that answer, but it was a bittersweet pill,” Hoffler said.
The whole video of Tomari drowning, nearly 40 minutes, started with the boy taking off his gray-and-blue Crocs and heading into the ankle-deep water, Hoffler said.
As he and the other children floated downriver 30 or 40 yards, the water became 25 feet deep.
Hoffler and the other attorneys don’t know much about how or why the camera wasn’t returned with Tomari’s body and his personal belongings.
No one has been interviewed in the case to confirm what happened in the year between the drowning death and Feb. 9, 2017, when Forbes got a call from a U.S. State Department official who said the agency had the camera, Hoffler said.
They think farmers in Belize found the camera and turned it over to Matthew Miller — the owner of Monkey Bay — who then gave it to the U.S. Embassy, which called Forbes.
When Forbes bought her boy the camera, it was to record his adventures during the trip, not his death.
“I’m led to believe from after looking at the video that his safety was never a priority or a concern and that is just beyond amazing,” Forbes said. “It breaks my heart a thousand times more just from looking at it.”
Forbes wasn’t in the room when her attorneys showed the footage on Friday, a tragic anniversary for the grieving mother.
“Today marks 14 months, 14 months. Yesterday was 14 months of his death, but today marks 14 months that I woke up with the realization that I will never see my son again,” she said.