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‘A great person and a great friend’

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

February 21, 2007

The family of Ronnie Eaton is relieved to have an answer for his disappearance — even if it has brought heartbreak.

“This is not what we wanted but it’s better than not knowing,” said Paul Eaton, his father.

On Friday afternoon, the body of the 36-year-old man from Hood River was found inside his submerged vehicle. (please click on Train engineer sights car in icy slough along I-84 for related story.)

Paul Eaton said long days spent theorizing about what had happened to his son are over. But the family now has to live with the loss of the man who had an “amazing smile” and was “always there to help.”

“This just seems like something that can only happen on TV,” said his mother Linda Eaton. “For me, to go through every day not knowing what had happened to him was harder than this.”

For almost a month, the Eaton family has lived out an emotional nightmare. They knew that something had gone horribly wrong when Ronnie vanished. Their speculation included the possibility of abduction and/or murder. The one thing they knew for sure was that he hadn’t left them voluntarily.

Stephanie insisted to police that desertion wasn’t in her husband’s character. She said when he failed to show up for work on Jan. 26 everyone close to him immediately began to worry.

She said Ronnie had a very close relationship with their three children: Zachory, 18, Taylor, 16, and Madison, 15. Stephanie described her husband as an avid outdoorsman whose greatest joy was taking his family on an adventure.

“He would never, ever take off without calling us first,” she said.

Throughout the ordeal, Stephanie stated the belief that Eaton was somewhere close. Linda worried that an accident had occurred and his vehicle had ended up in one of the many Gorge waterways.

Both were proved right on Friday when his car was recovered from a slough off Interstate 84 just east of Hood River. A medical examiner determined that his death was caused by drowning.

“We drove so many times past that spot looking for him. But, we never imagined that’s where he would be found,” said Stephanie.

Cary Thorington, Ronnie’s brother, said the support of local businesses and residents with the search effort was “amazing.” He said most of the 75 people who volunteered on Feb. 10 to scout county roads were unknown to any of the Eaton clan.

“The whole community kind of opened their heart to us. We felt so welcomed here and we are so grateful,” he said.

Stephanie, who is the personnel manager at Wal-Mart, said the company immediately printed fliers for distribution. Her employer also made sure that the family had plenty of food on hand to keep their strength and spirits up. She said other retailers and individuals generously offered supplies and/or their time to help out.

Thorington, who made numerous trips from his home in Kennewick, Wash., believes the discovery of Eaton’s body is due to the publicity given the case. He said the conductor on the Union Pacific train who spotted the submerged vehicle was on the lookout because of the efforts made by so many people.

Eaton, an electrical engineer, was employed by two local companies that are also in a state of “shock and disbelief” about his sudden death.

“I worked with him for nearly 10 years and he was a great person and a great friend. He was dedicated to the company. We all just keep looking at the door and waiting for him to walk in — and just can’t believe that he won’t be,” said Greg Schubert from ANPC (Advanced Navigation Positioning Corporation).

He said a scholarship fund to help the Eaton children further their education is being set up at a local bank.

“He dearly loved his family,” said Schubert.

“Ronnie was a great guy and he was pleasant to have around. I’m annoyed that he’s not around anymore. I want him back,” said Andy von Flotow from Hood Technology.

Stephanie anticipates there will be many more tearful moments ahead for the family. She said the first emotional milestone to get through is Zachory’s graduation from Hood River Valley High School in June.

“I will always wish that everything had turned out differently — this is just such a hard thing to get through,” she said.

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