Efe Ustenci
Efe Ustenci at his graduation on Friday

Update, June 24, 10:11 p.m. Read about the vigil and fundraiser that have been set up for Efe.

Original story, June 23, 2:07 p.m. The Berkeley community is mourning the tragic death Wednesday of Efejon Ustenci, who graduated with his Berkeley High School class less than a week ago.

Placer County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Dena Erwin said the 17-year-old, who lived in Berkeley, died in Long Lake. The lake is near Soda Springs, west of Lake Tahoe. She confirmed the teenager died from an apparent drowning and said his body has been recovered, but said no other information was immediately available because the coroner’s investigation is still underway.

Berkeley Unified School District spokesman Mark Coplan said mental health counseling services will be available at Berkeley High on Friday for anyone who needs to drop in for support.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to read BHS Principal Sam Pasarow’s message to the community.

Efe had been planning to attend Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in the fall, according to his Facebook page.

Friends mourned Efe’s death online.

Wrote Dante Ryan on Thursday morning: “I just heard seconds ago what happened, and I am mortified. I didn’t know you as deeply as I could have, but I did know what a beautiful soul you were. I was blessed to have class with you all 4 years of high school, and your positive attitude always brought the classroom up. You were always a unifying force. A smart, kind, accepting person. Always supportive of me and my dreams as I was you and yours. This is a sad morning.” 

Another friend, Mikko Mercy, who played youth football with Efe, recalled, “After every game we lost me and him would be the most pissed because we knew we could do better. Everyone else kinda just accepted it. We accepted it too but just not as quickly. I won’t forget the fire and desire you had in that field. Usually only people way older than me were able to influence me but on the field I looked up to you. When we got to high school we went our separate ways but never stopped being koo with each other. I pray you rest in peace.”

The undefeated Berkeley Rhinos. Photo: Jason Bathrick
The undefeated Berkeley Rhinos. Photo: Jason Bathrick

Efe played in the Berkeley Rhinos rugby club, which went undefeated during its regular season this year. He was one of the highest scoring players on the team and was named rookie of the year this past season.

Rhinos coach Nathaniel Muhler told Berkeleyside, “As one of his coaches I am heartbroken to hear about this. We need more information as well. He was a phenomenal athlete with great character.”

Efe has also been a member of the Coup, Berkeley High’s co-ed ultimate frisbee team.

Wrote Elizabeth Arthur, the mother of one of Efe’s friends, on Facebook: “He was an amazing kid, awesome soccer player, excellent student, and great friend to all who knew him. He had just graduated … this past Friday and had such a bright future.”

According to unconfirmed reports online, Efe had swum ahead of his friends in the lake to get to an island. When his friends arrived, they did not see him but eventually spotted his body. They began to do CPR, and were assisted by another person nearby who was familiar with the life-saving procedure.

According to the unconfirmed report, they did CPR for 40 minutes but, by the time paramedics arrived, “there was nothing more they could do.”

Efe Ustenci (attribution unknown)
Efe Ustenci (attribution unknown)

The remote lake is described online as “a picture-perfect Sierra getaway spot with crystal-clear waters surrounded by granite outcrops. Getting there requires a half-mile hike from the end of a rutted dirt road best traveled with a high-clearance vehicle.” It is located in the Tahoe National Forest’s Serene Lakes area off the Soda Springs exit on Interstate 80.

Friends online grappled to make sense of the news. Some said they were at a loss for words and sent messages of support to Efe’s family.

Wrote one, “Damn that’s crazy. We just graduated last week and somebody from our class dies.”

Wrote another, “That’s so heartbreaking  RIP  efejon and my condolences out to his family  lord please protect my loved ones.”

The principal of Berkeley High, Sam Pasarow, mailed this message to the community Thursday afternoon:

Dear Berkeley High Community,

It is with a heavy heart that I write this message. We lost a member of our community when a Class of 2016 Berkeley High graduate drowned yesterday, June 22, 2016. We have not been able to connect with the family and we are not naming the student or releasing any details until we have their permission and direction.

We will be holding grief support services here at Berkeley High School tomorrow, June 24, 12:00 noon – 2:00 PM, in the library. Students and staff can come together for support during this difficult time. There will be grief counselors available in the library to lead a presentation on the cycles of grief, strategies to help with healing, and safe and healthy ways of coping with this loss.

They will also provide materials to create a memorial banner, and allow the space for those present to speak out and share their stories.

BIHS will provide light snacks.

Thank you and let me know if you have any questions.

Sam Pasarow

Berkeleyside will update this story if additional information becomes available.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...