Former Vernon official Eric T. Fresch found dead in park

Eric T. Fresch, the former top Vernon official whose tenure became a lightning rod in last year’s effort to disincorporate the small industrial city, was found dead at a state park in the Bay Area, officials said Friday.

The body of Fresch, 58, was discovered by rangers Thursday evening at Angel Island State Park, which is located in San Francisco Bay not far from Fresch’s home in Tiburon.

Tiburon Battalion Chief Ed Lynch said Fresch had been cycling around the island with his wife before they got separated. When she couldn’t find him, she reported Fresch missing.

“He was at the bottom of a real steep embankment. It appeared he fell about 150 feet and landed in the shore line, partially in the water,” Lynch said. “It was reported that he had severe head trauma.”

Sgt. Keith Boyd of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division said there appeared to be no witnesses. He said the results of Fresch’s autopsy could be available in two to six weeks.

“It could have been a natural death, an accident where he fell and crashed, or a suicide, where it was intentional on his behalf,” Boyd said.

Fresch’s death came on the same day a state audit was released painting a dire picture of Vernon’s finances. The report raised questions about the city’s contracting and investment decisions during the time when Fresch was its top administrator.

The auditor said her staff could not reach Fresch for an interview despite a deposition subpoena and repeated attempts by process servers to track him down. In response to those claims, a state senator called for Los Angeles County prosecutors to investigate Fresch.

Last month, the California Public Employees Retirement System announced that it was slashing Fresch’s pension after finding irregularities with it and those of other Vernon officials.

Fresch was widely viewed as the most powerful decision-maker in the city’s government in recent years, and he made as much as $1.6 million in 2008. He began advising Vernon as an outside attorney in the 1980s and in 2003 became city attorney. He was the city administrator from 2006 to 2009 before moving to a consulting role. Late last year, Vernon announced Fresch would end his service to the city in May.

The Legislature last year considered dissolving Vernon after a series of corruption scandals. But the proposal failed after the city agreed to a series of reforms.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, the city said it “sends its heartfelt condolences to the family of former Vernon City Administrator Eric T. Fresch in their time of great personal loss due to his unfortunate passing.”

Former Vernon Councilman Daniel Newmire described Fresch as bright, knowledgeable and exceedingly pleasant — but also a bit elusive at times.

“He had an outgoing personality and his riding close to the edge of being a genius always made him compelling and interesting,” Newmire said. “He would say ‘you need to understand what your tools are, and learn how to use your tools.’ But he wouldn’t tell you exactly what the tools were.”

The island where Fresch died features a mix of trails and terrain, including gravelly roads and some cliffs.

Authorities said they were still trying to piece together what happened and were asking for the help of anyone who was on the island Thursday.

Lynch said that when Fresch’s wife couldn’t find him, she returned to Ayala Cove, the primary arrival and departure point for ferries.

“She looked around for him and couldn’t find him, and rode around some more looking for him. Then she reported him missing to the rangers,” he said.

Fresch was found in the northeast side of the island about 7:30 p.m., he said.

Times staff writer Sam Allen contributed to this report.