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Texas native killed in canoe accident found home in NNY

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WATERTOWN — John Villafranco loved his wife, his family and fishing.

The Texas native, who developed his passion for fishing on the Gulf Coast, came to the north country a few years ago with his future wife, Lydia, and found work as a Lake Ontario fishing guide.

But an evening of recreation on the water that drove Mr. Villafranco’s passion came to a tragic end April 21 when the canoe he and his wife were paddling capsized in the frigid waters of the Black River.

While Fort Drum soldiers fishing nearby pulled Lydia to safety, John, 24, could not survive in the strong current, according to David Sobel, a longtime friend of the Villafranco family in San Antonio who spoke to the Times on Wednesday and confirmed the couple’s identity. Mr. Villafranco’s body has not been found, and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is still withholding the names.

“We’re all devastated,” Mr. Sobel said. “He had finally found his little niche in life.”

When Mr. Villafranco was younger, he and his father, Gilbert, would make the 150-mile trip to the Gulf Coast in search of sea trout and redfish.

He never won one of the pickup trucks or boats or other prizes from the many redfish tournaments, but he was not deterred.

The three men were planning a salmon fishing trip together, Mr. Sobel said. He and the elder Mr. Villafranco were to travel from San Antonio and fish at the spots John knew so well. Mr. Sobel also planned to take John bluefish fishing on the coast of Maine, which he knew John would have enjoyed.

It would have been the first time the two went fishing together.

“Well, we never got to do it,” Mr. Sobel said.

Mr. Sobel and the elder Mr. Villafranco coached John’s Little League baseball team. John was a “good kid” even at age 24, Mr. Sobel said. When he wasn’t fishing, John could be found painting or playing the drums.

“He had a full life,” Mr. Sobel said.

John and Lydia met in San Antonio a few years ago and soon moved here, Mrs. Villafranco’s native area. At the wedding in October, John and Mr. Sobel exchanged fishing stories.

Mr. Sobel told of him as a child growing up in Connecticut, going to New York with his father and younger brother on the opening day of trout season to catch the season’s first fish and to watch all the “yahoos” that always turn out on the first day of the season.

After sharing a laugh, John told him a story of one group of clients that all but wanted John to catch the salmon for them. Those customers were yahoos too. John would show them how and where to fish, but he would never catch the fish for them.

“He took them to the places where they could get the salmon, but they had to do that,” Mr. Sobel said.

But on the Black River, John was in unfamiliar waters.

“You need to have so much local knowledge on the area, especially during the seasonal melt,” Mr. Sobel said.

Mr. Sobel said his father always told him that the dark, or “black,” water was not safe.

On the day the Villafrancos launched their canoe on the Black River off Eastern Boulevard, the current was strong and the river swollen with recent rain and snow melt.

“People think that because the water is deeper, it’d be safer,” Mr. Sobel said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The deeper water allows for the formation of bigger vortices and underwater currents, largely invisible from the outside, he said. The water was cold, too, far colder than any water John had experienced in Texas.

“He loved to fish, and that was his chosen profession, but there is no place in Texas where the temperature is 36, 37 degrees,” Mr. Sobel said.

When caught in a river vortex or strong current, as Mr. Sobel believes happened to John, a person would be spun at the same intensity as the vortex and beaten against the rocks and riverbed.

“You wouldn’t last long,” Mr. Sobel said.

John and his wife appeared to be holding each other as they struggled in the water, according to the three Fort Drum soldiers who described the rescue efforts. John appeared to hold his wife above water in one final motion before he went under, Pvt. Trenton M. Brown said.

“I wouldn’t have expected anything less,” Mr. Sobel said. “He loved her.”

Now, John’s father and mother, Blanche, can only wait. They and John’s two older sisters flew to the north country from San Antonio the day after the accident, Mr. Sobel said. His sisters have returned home, but his parents remain.

“I want Gilbert and Blanche to start the healing process,” Mr. Sobel said. “They’re just special people.”

They will stay until their son is found, Mr. Sobel said, because until John’s body is discovered and brought back to Texas for a memorial service, there won’t be closure.

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