'There is quiet where he used to be.' Family tells of John Adam Moo, 10, who drowned (2024)

Tom Loewy , Joshua Shimkus

Ter Tha's last memory of John Adam Moo is a good one.

"We were playing the wresting game on Playstation," Tha said Friday. He smiled as he recalled Monday, June 17 — last time he saw the 10-year-old who called him Dad.

"We were playing and one of his friends came knocking to use our bathroom. We finished up. It was always fun to play games with John," Tha said. "We liked to play against each other with the video games. John said they were going to the park. I trusted him."

Moo and his friends instead went to Sunset Marina. He died hours later after drowning, reportedly while trying to save another swimmer.

A report from a Rock Island Police officer retold the statement of a witness who was driving his truck near the marina's 18th Avenue entrance when he saw some juveniles bobbing up and down in the water near the dock at the north side of Lake Potter.

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The witness said at first he couldn’t tell if the kids were playing or in distress. He drove down to the lake and saw a kid on the bank, two kids in the water struggling to swim, and a fourth kid, older than the others, reaching out to the girl in the water with a stick to help pull her in.

The witness got into the water and helped pull the girl to the shore. The witness went back to help John, but saw his head go below the water. According to the report, the witness “said he grabbed for the male juvenile but the juvenile slipped through his fingers.” The witness “said he tried to swim down to find the male juvenile but he was unsuccessful.”

Rock Island Police officers responded to the scene at 1:23 p.m., followed by divers from Big River Rescue and Recovery Dive Team at 2:02 p.m.

Rock Island Alderman Mark Poulos, co-founder of Big River Rescue, arrived first and was in the water by 2:08 p.m. Another member of the dive team arrived and Poulos located Moo’s body at 2:34 p.m. The child was transported to Unity Point Hospital by ambulance and pronounced dead at 3:09 p.m.

Moo lived with Tha and his mother, Thin Ni Lah, and four other siblings in a two-story brick side-by-side in Rock Island's Century Woods public housing complex. He had just finished fifth grade at Earl Hanson Elementary School.

Tha started the conversation about Moo while he stood on the apartment's front stoop.

Tha said he didn't know Moo was going swimming and that he mostly hung out with friends in the small park located inside the complex.

"John and I, we talked. I'm not his father, I'm his step-father, but he called me Dad," said Tha, who was born in Burma and lived for years in a refugee camp in Thailand before legally immigrating to the United States in 2007.

Tha smiled again.

"He was always asking me questions. 'Can we play a game?' 'Can we watch this together?' 'Can you make me a sandwich?' Always with 'Can you make me a sandwich?' He was good, you know?" Tha said.

He fell silent after those words, bowed his head and closed his eyes.

"You should talk with John's mother," Tha said. "Please, come inside."

Moo's oldest siblings straightened the living room and put away shoes when Tha's guests entered. Lah sat on a blue blanket on one of the two couches facing the television.

She was born in Thailand and, like Tha, lived in a refugee camp before immigrating to this country. Lah explained that Moo was born in Rock Island.

"His name is John Adam Moo," she said with a faint smile. "After the second president."

Lah said her son was well-liked in the little community and many people stopped by the apartment to offer condolences. She proudly showed a framed certificate that commemorated her son's Nov 19, 2023, baptism at the Christ Temple Church Quad Cities.

"He wanted to be in the Army," Tha said, helping Lah find the words.

Moo's sister, Paw Paw, jumped to her feet when asked what was most annoying about her brother.

"He like to put foods together," she said. "Weird, um, combinations. Like pizza with eggs and bacon."

Lah and Tha laughed quietly at the memory.

"He liked to put everything on pizza," Paw said. "But he did not like school. The last time we talked about it, he did say he liked math, I think."

"He liked to put mayonnaise on everything," Lah said quietly.

Lah wiped tears from her eyes and the room fell silent before the sound of a relative knocking on the door created a stir.

Tha said he misses the boy who called him Dad.

"It's like an empty hole in the house," he said. "There is quiet where he used to be."

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect date for when John Moo died. This version has been corrected.

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'There is quiet where he used to be.' Family tells of John Adam Moo, 10, who drowned (2024)
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