A woman who dedicated her life to caring for sick and lost animals apparently lost her own life trying to save a small dog wandering near the Flat Rock River in Columbus.
Jacquelyn Kleine Watts, a former Columbus resident who was born in Seymour and known as Jackie, 33, left her car Friday afternoon in the 2300 block of Riverside Drive to try to save the dog, reported to be ill with vision problems and nearly deaf, police said in a Monday news conference.
“At a young age, Jackie developed a love for animals,” her family said in a statement read by retired Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent John Quick. “To say that this was Jackie’s passion would be an understatement.”
The family said Watts cared deeply about the well-being of animals.
“If she believed she could help an animal in need, she was going to do so without hesitation,” her family said in the prepared statement. “We know that Jackie gave her life for what she believed in.”
A witness who lived in the Riverside Drive area reported that a woman matching Watts’ description was chasing a small white dog wearing a sweater near the area of 23rd and Washington streets at 2 p.m. Friday, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman. That tip came in late Friday as the search for Watts continued overnight into Saturday.
The witness, who was in a car, said the driver had to hit the brakes to avoid hitting Watts and the dog when they were seen.
Another witness, who also lived in the area, told police a woman matching Watts’ description was trying to catch the dog while heading south along the Flat Rock River bank between 2 and 4 p.m. That tip also came in on Friday.
The police department’s working theory is that Watts and the dog entered the river near the low-head dam, close to Noblitt Park, as she pursued the dog south along the riverbank, Harris said. The river was moderately high on Friday and moving at a swift pace, he said.
After an overnight search using police K-9s, helicopters and boats, searchers found Watts’ body at 8:01 a.m. Saturday on a sandbar in the river, Harris said.
Watts’ cause of death was determined to be accidental drowning, pending toxicology results, Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting said.
The autopsy, performed Monday afternoon at Columbus Regional Hospital by a forensic pathologist, did not reveal Watts had any injuries that contributed to her death, the coroner said.
The coroner’s office is using the time Watts was found as the time of death, Nolting said. Investigators cannot determine her exact time of death because of circumstances surrounding the incident, including the river water depth, speed of the current and other factors, he said.
At 8:09 p.m. Saturday, police received a tip about a missing dog, Ringo, described as a small white dog wearing a sweater.
On Sunday, officers continued a search of the Flat Rock as the water receded about a foot from the previous day and found the dog’s body south of Noblitt Park on the east bank of the East Fork White River, Harris said.
Witnesses said the dog matched the description of the animal Watts had been trying to catch on Friday.
The Columbus Police Department released a statement early Sunday night saying no foul play was suspected in Watts’ death.
“The bottom line is that we lost a very special person,” Harris said, describing some of the stories he had read about Watts over the past few days, including her efforts to provide hospice care to dying animals when it was needed.
“To help a lost dog — it doesn’t seem out of character for her,” Harris said.
Watts volunteered with the Kentuckiana Boxer Rescue and Indy Claw Animal Rescue, where she was a member of the organization’s board of directors. She fostered multiple dogs and rabbits, even those that the Indy Claw rescue group knew would not survive, according to that organization’s social media page.
Watts worked as an esthetician for Evan Todd Spa in Indianapolis and had been a teaching assistant for Indianapolis Public Schools, and an events coordinator with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana.
She was the daughter of Ric and Peggy Kleine of Columbus, and was married to Michael Watts, who graduated from Columbus North High School, the son of Dave and Sandy Watts, Columbus.
Quick, who read the family’s statement, is close friends with the Watts family. Sandy Watts taught at Taylorsville Elementary School, where Quick started his career at BCSC. Jackie Watts was a 2002 Columbus East High School graduate and received a degree in elementary/early childhood education with a mild intervention endorsement from Butler University in 2007.
The family, through its statement, expressed its deepest gratitude to the public safety agencies that worked to find Jackie, and said they continued to be overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support from family, friends and the Columbus community.
“We are deeply moved that so many of you shared in the effort to help our Jackie,” the family wrote.
Saying they were eternally grateful for the time they had with her, the family said they were finding solace in the stories of Jackie’s impact on those who knew her, especially the memories of her as a wife, daughter and sister.
“We will continue to celebrate her life through the memories that she has left in our lives,” the family wrote. “Oh that we would all be filled with enough passion to give our lives for what we believe in.”
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Jacquelyn Watts was born Jan. 11, 1984, in Seymour, the daughter of Ric and Peggy Barringer Kleine.
She received an academic honors diploma from Columbus East High School in 2002 and a BA in elementary/early childhood education with a mild intervention endorsement from Butler University in 2007, where she was affiliated with the Delta Gamma sorority. In 2011, Jacquelyn received an esthetics diploma from Honors Beauty College.
A Mass of Christian burial for Jacquelyn Watts will be at noon Thursday at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, 1306 27th St., Columbus.
Calling will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Barkes, Weaver and Glick Funeral Home, 1029 Washington St., and from 11 a.m. until service time Thursday at the church.