Edward L. “Peanut” Whitfield III thought he could survive anything.
He spent three years in a state prison. He endured losing his parents when he was just a boy, his mother to cancer and his father after he was paralyzed by a gunshot wound.
And his girlfriend, July M. Towsley, 32, is convinced he thought he could survive jumping into the Black River to save 5-year-old Zachary J. Finley from drowning Saturday. The boy fell into the water and Mr. Whitfield disregarded his own safety and dove into the water despite the river’s strong currents, police said.
“He’s our hero,” Miss Towsley said.
The boy’s body was found about an hour later, while the 47-year-old Mr. Whitfield remains missing and feared drowned. A group of Watertown city firefighters searched for him again from the river’s banks Tuesday, police said.
On Thursday, Miss Towsley will be joined by their friends, family members and others to say goodbye to Mr. Whitfield during a memorial and candlelight vigil at the site where he went missing, near the 500 block of West Main Street. They will meet at 4 p.m. for prayers and the vigil will start at about 6 p.m. before the group returns to her cousin Renee Martin’s town of Watertown house to tell stories about him.
“We’ll talk about the good and the bad,” Mrs. Martin said.
Since he disappeared, Miss Towsley, her cousin and her cousin’s husband, Robert, and others have walked along the river’s banks in search of Peanut, a nickname he got when he was stationed at Fort Drum during the mid-1980s. Finding even a piece of his clothing would help them find closure, Mrs. Martin said.
Mr. Whitfield was fishing with a group that included the boy, his mother, Susan R. Finley, and others when the accident happened.
Over the years, Mr. Whitfield and Miss Towsley spent lots of time at the river, where they even spent nights under the stars. An avid fisherman, Mr. Whitfield knew just about every spot along the river to fish, she said. So it did not surprise her that he risked his life to save the boy.
“He was the best swimmer and swam in the Black River all the time,” she said.
While she could not provide a lot of details, Miss Towsley said her boyfriend had a “tough childhood,” adding he saw his father get shot.
“He was always a survivor,” she said.
After leaving the Army, he decided to stay in Watertown, where two of his daughters live. His two grown daughters live in southern states.
And life between the couple was just starting up again, Miss Towsley said. They had just gotten back together about two weeks ago. He finally talked about marriage. They had two boys — Edward L., 4, and Ezekiel, 3 — together.
“It was off and on again. Sometimes it was a rocky relationship, but my love for him was deep,” she said.
Miss Towsley acknowledged her boyfriend had frequent bouts with the law, mostly in connection with domestic disputes and disobeying court orders to stay away from her. In March, he was released from Chateaugay Correctional Facility after spending three years in prison for assaulting her, she said.
As a result of the legal trouble, they lost the two boys to adoption, but he was just getting back into their lives, she said.
Despite his problems, he was turning his life around, she said.
“You know, I think he rose to the occasion,” Miss Towsley said.