CHP officer dies while scuba diving off Sonoma County coast

CHP officer dies while scuba diving in Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County

A California Highway Patrol lieutenant who had served in the U.S. Marines died while scuba diving off the Sonoma County coast, authorities said.

Jeffrey Rhea died Sunday while diving with three friends in Gerstle Cove in Salt Point State Park, said Lt. Al Vernon of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

The 54-year-old, who retired from the Marine Reserves in 2011, was wearing a scuba tank and gear but something went wrong and authorities received a distress call, Vernon said.

Rhea of Rohnert Park was found on the water’s surface, unresponsive, before being brought to shore. His friends and rescuers tried to save him, but Rhea could not be revived.

The Sonoma County coroner’s office is trying to determine the cause of Rhea’s death.

While in the Marines, Rhea attained the rank of chief warrant officer 4, making him a senior level expert in his field. In 1988, he joined the CHP and worked throughout the Bay Area and Central California.

He eventually rose to rank of lieutenant and joined the CHP’s Santa Rosa office in 2009. Rhea is survived by two daughters.

“We send our greatest sympathy to Jeff Rhea’s family,” said Capt. Greg Baarts, who oversees the Santa Rosa office. “Jeff was an integral part of our command and our CHP family. It is a great loss for all of us.”

The abalone diving season is open at Gerstle Cove, which attracts shallow divers hunting for shellfish visible in plain sight.

At least four people have died searching for the mollusks this year in Mendocino County, just north of Sonoma County.

But Dennis Weber, a spokesman for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, said it appeared that Rhea was diving recreationally and not for abalone.

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