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 native of Columbus who was 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.”

Services for Jacquelyn Watts

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 & Glick Funeral Home, 1029 Washington St., and from 11 a.m. until service time Thursday at the church.

Statement from family

A statement from the family about the death of Jacquelyn D. Watts, 33, Indianapolis, read by retired Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent John Quick:

We would first like to express our deepest gratitude to the public safety agencies that worked tirelessly to find Jackie. Your professionalism and sincere regard for our family will never be forgotten. We continue to be overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support from family, friends and members of the community.

We are deeply moved that so many of you shared in the effort to help our Jackie. We would like to take this opportunity to tell you about the wonderful woman she was.

In the days following Jacquelyn’s passing we have learned of many kind acts honoring her memory. It has lifted up our hearts to see that Jackie has touched so many lives. Jackie’s compassion for others was evident throughout her life. From her work as a teaching assistant in the Indianapolis Public Schools, as events coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Indianapolis, and through her vocation as an esthetician, Jackie saw beauty and value in everyone.

She was an inspiration to those that knew her. Always placing others before herself, she lived and loved with great humility.

At a young age, Jackie developed a love for animals. To say that this was Jackie’s passion would be an understatement. Jackie volunteered with the Kentuckiana Boxer Rescue and Indy Claw Animal Rescue, where she was a member of the board of directors. She also fostered multiple dogs and rabbits. She 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. We know that Jackie gave her life for what she believed in.

As her family, we are eternally gratefully for the time that we had with Jackie. During this difficult time, we find solace in the stories of Jackie’s impact on those that knew her, especially the memories that we have of Jackie as a wife, daughter and sister. We will continue to celebrate her life through the memories that she has left in our lives.

“Oh that we would all be filled with enough passion to give our lives for what we believe in.”

Timeline in disappearance

Friday

1:30 p.m.: Jacquelyn Watts, 33, Indianapolis, drops off two dogs and a rabbit in Columbus at her in-laws and her parents’ homes, planning to return to Indianapolis to catch a flight to Washington, D.C., to visit relatives over the weekend.

1:54 p.m.: She is seen on home security camera leaving one of the residences and heading toward Washington Street.

2 p.m.: A witness observes a woman matching Watts’ description chasing a small white dog which is wearing a sweater in the area of 23rd and Washington streets. Police said this tip was reported at midnight.

2 to 4 p.m.: Witness sees a female matching Watts description next to the Flat Rock River attempting to catch a small white dog wearing a sweater. This was reported to police also on Friday night

2:15 to 3 p.m.: Two witnesses see an abandoned vehicle on Riverside Drive.

4:51 p.m.: Columbus police are sent to a report of a suspicious vehicle and find a white passenger car in the 2300 block of Riverside Drive with its flashers on. Police confirmed Monday that Watts’ keys, cellphone and purse were found in the vehicle and the passenger door was slightly open.

4:56 p.m.: Columbus police receive a report of a missing person. Police begin a ground search in the area around Riverside Drive, which is residential and backs up to the Flat Rock River and several ponds. Officers use police canines in the ground search, and a StatFlight medical helicopter and the Kentucky State Police helicopter were also searching from the air.

5:21 p.m.: Bartholomew County E911 attempts to contact Watts’ cellphone by sending a text to her, but does not receive a response.

8:26 p.m.: Bartholomew County’s Everbridge system is activated, sending a message to those within a mile radius around Riverside Drive that Watts is listed as missing.

9 p.m.: Five members of the Bartholomew County Water Rescue and Recovery team are at the scene and searched until midnight with an airboat.

Saturday

1:50 a.m.: Police report there are no additional details to release. Additional officers are called in to aid in the ground search. Riverside Drive and areas surrounding it are blocked off by crime scene tape.

7 a.m.: Morning briefing for those involved in the ground search.

7:45 a.m.: The search continues in the Riverside Drive area with police and the Department of Natural Resources focusing in the Flat Rock River area.

8:01 a.m.: Watts’ body is found on a sandbar in the Flat Rock River, about a half mile south of Riverside Drive. The Bartholomew County Coroner’s office is notified and goes to the scene in Noblitt Park, near Newsom Drive.

10 a.m.: In a news conference at Columbus City Hall, Columbus police confirm the body found is Watts.

11:15 a.m.: The Bartholomew County Coroner’s Office removes Watts’ body from the scene.

12:30 p.m.: Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting says Watts’ autopsy will be on Monday.

3:55 p.m.: Bartholomew County Deputy Coroner Jay Frederick releases a statement from the coroner’s office that additional information about Watts’ death will be released following the autopsy.

8:09 p.m.: Columbus police receive a tip about a missing dog, Ringo, who was reportedly the white dog wearing a sweater.

Sunday

12:29 p.m.: Columbus police resume a search of the Flat Rock River after the river depth receded about a foot overnight.

2:11 p.m.: The body of Ringo, the small white dog, is located south of Noblitt Park on the east bank of the East Fork White River.

3:20 p.m.: Investigators again speak with the witness who described seeing a woman matching Watts’ description chasing a small white dog next to the river. The witness told police that Ringo was the dog wearing a sweater and matched the dog to a social media post about the missing dog. The witness said Watts was last seen running south after the dog towards the low-head dam on the river.

7 p.m.: Columbus police say they do not suspect foul play in Watts’ death and announce a noon news conference for Monday to release more details about the case.

Source: Columbus Police Department

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.