Supervisor at time of boy’s drowning death promoted in St. Louis County Parks Department

Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 7:04 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The parents of 6-year-old TJ Mister, who drowned at a St. Louis County summer camp, continue to question if there has been any accountability after their son’s death.

News 4 Investigates learned a supervisor involved in conversations about lifeguard shortages and safety concerns at the pool where TJ drowned was just promoted.

News 4 Investigates obtained an email sent to the parks department staff stating Eric Johnson will take over as the Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation effective April 2.

This is the second promotion of a supervisor at the Parks Department who was in charge when TJ drowned. Johnson is replacing Brian Schaffer, who was promoted to Director of Parks and Recreation. The former Director, Tom Ott, announced his retirement after TJ’s death.

“To hear that now people are getting promoted and my baby is dead, I can’t get him back,” Olga Mister said through tears on Monday.

Olga and her husband Travone Mister have been pushing for answers and safety changes ever since TJ’s death.

“Eight months in, and it’s just not better, and it would have been really nice if they would take some responsibility and make changes, but instead, they’re just promoting people,” Olga Mister said.

In July 2022, TJ Mister drowned at the Kennedy Recreation Complex pool. When TJ died, County records show he struggled in the water for almost five minutes before he was pulled out. County records show there were 40 kids in the pool and only one lifeguard, even though County policy requires two lifeguards.

County records show the 911 call was also routed to a call center in Colorado because the County had not properly set up its internet-based phones.

Previous reporting by News 4 Investigates uncovered emails from parks department staff talking about lifeguard shortages and questioning if the Kennedy Center pool should be closed for safety during the 2022 season. Johnson’s and Schaffer’s names are on several of those messages.

“An email is having your hands in it,” Travone Mister said. “We lost a son, our son lost his life, and people who are over this facility are being promoted.”

News 4 Investigates reached out to Johnson for comment, he has not yet responded.

Johnson has been with the department for almost 30 years, most recently working as the Recreation Manager. In his new role, he’ll be earning $90,958.40 a year.

During a phone call with Department Director Brian Schaffer, he asked for questions about Johnson’s promotion to be emailed to him.

Schaffer provided the following statement to News 4 Investigates:

“Mr. Johnson was selected as the Deputy Director of Parks & Recreation through a competitive application process that was advertised through County HR and was publicized on various job boards including the Missouri Recreation and Park Association career board.  A member of County HR and I conducted interviews with six qualified candidates.  The five top ranking candidates were referred to me for a final decision.  Mr. Johnson was selected based on his track record of success in the field of recreation.  Eric started working for St. Louis County Parks as a Park Ranger in 1994.  Beginning in 2006, he served as a Recreation Complex Manager at multiple locations including the North County Recreation Complex, Greensfelder Recreation Complex, and the Affton Community Center.  Since 2021, Eric has held the position of Recreation Manager which oversees the Recreation Division.  The Recreation Division includes seven recreation centers/complexes and five historic/cultural sites.”

According to Schaffer, the decision to hire Johnson was up to him, and no one from County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s Office was involved in the decision.

Schaffer took over as Director in January.

“I can’t talk about the pending litigation or anything related to the incident at the Kennedy Complex,” Schaffer said on the phone.

Schaffer did talk about some changes the County is making to summer camps and pools. The County recently signed a more than $900,000 contract hiring a private company, Midwest Pool Management, to oversee all pools.

Schaffer also said there would be mandatory swim tests for kids at camps involving swimming, TJ was not given a swim test. According to Schaffer, all recreation staff will receive CPR and AED training. County records show staff did not use an AED on TJ since they only saw adult pads, despite the fact that adult pads can and should be used on children.

County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Misters filed a $40 million civil lawsuit against the County, saying they want answers and accountability.

“They’re hiding behind this lawsuit saying they can’t do anything or say anything, the thing is, it’s not about our son, they can’t bring him back, but they can save other kids, and I think that’s a lot more important,” Olga Mister added.

Earlier this year, the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office announced it declined to charge anyone in TJ’s death.

This tragedy has led to a pair of bills in the Missouri legislature that would require licensing for summer camps, something the Misters hope will protect kids at summer camps.

The Misters are working to raise awareness for camp safety and are holding a carnival in TJ’s honor on May 20 at Apple of Your Eye Learning Center.