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What happened to Jack? Mystery over Texas boating death of California teen finally unravels years later

From the moment Jack Elliott tumbled from the bow of a 22-foot boat into the darkness of a Texas lake, “extreme hysteria” gripped the college friends who had ventured out for a day of revelry on the water.

And in their panic, the teens hatched a plan to hide the truth from authorities and even Jack’s family in Newport Beach.

It would take 10 days to recover Jack’s body at a depth of more than 100 feet, and two years to fully unravel what actually happened that day on Lake Travis outside Austin.

Jack, 19, was among 12 teenagers, nearly all from Texas Christian University – and several from Southern California – who climbed onto the Axis A22 vessel in October 2019 for an afternoon of wakeboarding and drinking. Nearly all of the 18- and 19-year-old students had been sipping vodka, beer and White Claw hard seltzer as they ventured near Devil’s Cove, considered one of the most prolific floating party places in the country.

But when Jack went overboard, their alcohol buzz turned to fear.

The group knew police would have questions. Were they drinking? Who was driving the boat? And, of course, what happened to Jack? Quickly, the gears started spinning on an alleged cover-up.

Five of the teens now face criminal charges. Some also have been sued by Jack’s family. This article was reported using police records and sworn statements from the lawsuit — depositions and affidavits — as well as recordings of a phone call some of the students made to Jack’s parents.

Throughout the legal proceedings, the teens invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate themselves. But, despite tears and tight lips, the story still came out.

Los Alamitos’ Keanu Norman tries to break free from Corona del Mar’s Jack Elliott as the two teams battle on Oct. 12, 2018, in Cerritos. (Photo by Tracey Roman, Contributing Photographer) 

College life begins

At the center of the tragic saga was Jack Elliott, a Corona del Mar High School graduate with a close-mouthed grin, a knowing smile that now haunts his parents, Brett and Amy.

Jack was a hometown athlete, No. 2 for the Sea Kings football team. He was all-Sunset League, a two-year starter as a cornerback.

Friends knew him as outgoing and enthusiastic, a boy with a big heart who was looking forward to studying business at TCU. He wanted to go into commercial real estate, a lucrative field occupied by many of his Newport Beach neighbors.

“He always joked he wanted to take care of Mom and Dad when he got older,” remembered his father, Brett.

TCU ticked off all the boxes for Jack. It had a top-20 business school and a 302-acre campus where graduates earned an average of $60,833 a year right out of college. And it was a Big 12 school, home of the Horned Frogs.

Brett and Jack Elliott display the Horned Frog gesture at TCU in 2019. (Courtesy of Elliott family)Brett and Jack Elliott display the Horned Frog gesture at TCU in 2019. (Courtesy of Elliott family) 

The university attracted others from Southern California, including Caden Strauss, another Newport Beach teen whom Jack had known since seventh grade. They became roommates in the dorm.

Before school started, Jack hosted a pool party for the future TCU students from the area at his parents’ house. It was there he met Delaney Brennan, a Huntington Beach High School graduate who planned to study fashion merchandising in college.

There was an instant attraction between Jack and Delaney that summer of 2019, a casual flirtation that lasted right up to the moment he disappeared.

Weekend plans

Jack had been in college only eight weeks when he and some friends jumped into a borrowed car on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, to make the three-hour drive from Fort Worth to the Austin City Limits music festival at Zilker Park, along the Colorado River.

On the bill for the three-day festival were Cardi B, Billie Eilish, Childish Gambino and other major acts performing on multiple stages. Jack, like most of his schoolmates, had a fake ID and purchased the White Claw, vodka and tequila for the festival, with Venmo donations from the other kids, including $57 from one of their mothers.

The students met with others from TCU who were staying with relatives or in an Airbnb. On that Saturday, Brett Elliott video-called his son, who appeared on the mobile phone screen freshly scrubbed and ready for a night in Austin.

“He looked handsome and happy,” Brett said. It was the last time he would ever see Jack.

That Monday, Oct. 14, Jack’s mother, Amy, talked to him by phone. He told her of his plans to go with the group that day to Lake Travis, where his friend’s father had a boat and managed the members-only Northshore Marina.

Amy’s stomach dropped. For some reason, she felt uncomfortable with the boating trip. Call it a mother’s intuition. She didn’t know the friends, she didn’t know the lake — and she couldn’t possibly know how right she was.

Jack Elliott. (Courtesy of Elliott family)Jack Elliott (Courtesy of Elliott family) 

Perfect start to the day

Traveling in separate cars, the 12-member group ventured to the lake, led by Carson Neel, whose father, Billy, ran the marina.

They stopped at the boat shop for cigarettes, ice and snacks, loaded up the vodka, beer and White Claw and set off about 3:30 p.m. with Carson at the wheel of the wakeboarding boat. Carson had plenty of experience in the captain’s chair and had taken a boating safety class when he was 15.

Like Jack, Carson was a business major and a former football player, an all-state wide receiver for Cedar Park High in Texas.

On the boat, Carson showed the group where the life jackets were stowed. Eli Stevens, one of the teens who made a legal statement, said he couldn’t remember Carson doing anything else in the way of giving safety instructions. So they danced on the slippery, wet deck of a moving vessel, the music blaring from the boat’s speakers.

It was a sunny afternoon, perfect for swimming and wakeboarding. When it was Carson’s turn in the water, he gave the wheel to Elle Weber, another California native from Hermosa Beach. Weber had no formal training but had some experience driving boats.

When the beer ran dry, they went back to the marina, where Carson took a 12-pack from the refrigerator in the office area. No one else was there.

Then it was back to the festivities.

Chaos erupts

After several hours on the water, the boat rumbled hard, as if it had run over something. That’s when the partiers noticed Jack was gone. Carson had the vessel on cruise control, traveling just over 10 mph, and Elle was at the wheel.

Chaos erupted as the group realized what that bump meant. It was 8:27 p.m., about 90 minutes past sunset.

Carson turned the boat around and went back to the spot where he believed Jack went overboard. The friends screamed Jack’s name and shined their cellphone flashlights into the dark water. One member of the group described the scene as “extreme hysteria.”

“A lot of people were freaking out and crying and not communicating well,” Carson said in a sworn affidavit. “I tried to stay as calm as possible because I knew it was serious and freaking out would make it worse.”

Carson jumped into the lake, checked the propeller and looked for Jack. But the group spent no more than five minutes searching before they headed back to shore, according to Caden’s deposition.

And in the panic and shock, lies were born.

Deception begins

Elle called 911. She gave her name to police as “Elle Macpherson.” She would later say in a sworn deposition that she was unfamiliar with the name of the famous supermodel and actress.

Carson convinced the group there was nothing more they could do out on the water.

On the way back, they dumped the remaining alcohol overboard. And since Carson and Elle had been drinking — Carson had about five beers and Elle two White Claws and four swigs of vodka — another member of the group, Anthony Salazar, was enlisted to say he had been driving the boat. Anthony felt sick that day and didn’t imbibe. Out of what appeared to be a sense of duty to his friends, Anthony allegedly went along with the ruse.

Investigators from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office met the teens after they pulled into the marina. Deputies questioned them separately. But the stories didn’t add up — and wouldn’t for a long time.

A parent’s worst nightmare

That night, in Corona del Mar, Brett Elliott got a phone call from a friend, who asked if he had heard from Jack. Social media was abuzz with the news of a boating accident involving TCU students.

Brett wasn’t overly alarmed and was less worried after he called another TCU father, who said he hadn’t heard anything.

As a precaution, Brett telephoned the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, but was given little information about the accident. So far, so good — until his wife’s phone rang. Someone was calling from the 512 area code — Travis County.

It was the sheriff’s department, informing the parents that Jack was missing and they were calling off the search for the night due to darkness.

During that gut-twisting phone call, Brett said authorities told him Jack had done a back flip off the boat. Amy Elliott was instantly dubious. “No way!” she screamed in the background.

Deputies later told Brett another story allegedly from the teens, that Jack fell while vomiting over the side of the boat.

‘Honest answers’ that weren’t

Two days after the accident, some of the teens got together with their parents in a meeting room at a Courtyard by Marriott in Fort Worth. By then, authorities had called off the active search for Jack and now were focused on retrieving his body.

The Elliotts were grieving, and not knowing how their only son died just made the pain worse. All they wanted was the truth, and to find Jack. The teens put a phone on speaker mode and called Brett and Amy, promising to bare all. The Southern California News Group reviewed two separate recordings of the call.

Elle did much of the talking. Sobbing loudly, she said how sorry the teens were for Jack’s death and for “all the stories you’ve heard.”

She acknowledged sitting atop the driver’s seat, though, she said, no one was steering the boat. But the group couldn’t tell Jack’s parents how he went overboard.

“We don’t know how Jack fell off the boat,” Elle said. “We don’t know if Jack stood up to change his position and he lost his balance or if he was fixing his hair, we don’t know what he was doing.

“These are the most honest answers we can give you right now,” she said.

Except they weren’t.

At the hotel, the teens decided beforehand they would not be truthful with the Elliotts, Eli said in his deposition.

Shortly after the phone call, Brett was contacted by a father who was there in the hotel meeting room.

Jack didn’t fall off the boat, the father said. He was pushed.

Body recovered 109 feet down

Lake Travis is a manmade reservoir, 210 feet deep, 65 miles long, 4.5 miles wide. Beneath the muddy water are pecan orchards, with tangled branches protruding from the deep.

Sixteen searchers, five boats and cadaver dogs descended on the lake, hampered in their hunt by the treacherous orchards, according to published reports.

Brett Elliott knew a guy who knew a guy who was connected with DOER Marine Operations in Alameda, California. The firm specializes in deep-sea technology, underwater exploration and recovering wreckage from such disasters as air crashes.

Company President Liz Taylor said the firm worked with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, which had a remotely operated submersible with a camera hooked to it. But the camera couldn’t see clearly in the murky water. DOER was able to bring in an AUV,  an autonomous underwater vehicle, which uses sonar to map out the terrain.

“It was just too dangerous to blindly send people down,” Taylor said.

The AUV moved across the top of the orchard, mapping it out. Within a day or two, Jack’s body was found at a depth of 109 feet. Another submersible with a mechanical arm brought his body up to a level where divers could retrieve it.

In all, the search took about 10 days. Jack finally was headed home to a beachside memorial the weekend after Thanksgiving 2019. While others were planning their turkey dinners, Brett Elliott was writing his son’s eulogy.

Brett had his boy back. But, still, precious few answers.

The Elliott family in 2019. (Courtesy of Brett Elliott)The Elliott family in 2019. (Courtesy of Brett Elliott) 

Mystery deepens

The online student news site at Texas Christian University said Jack had fallen from the boat. So did a short story in Orange County’s Daily Pilot newspaper.

The reports made Brett grit his teeth. His son didn’t just fall into the water.

“My heart is broken into a million pieces,” Brett wrote in Jack’s Facebook memorial. “But, with each passing month, you give me more and more strength to keep pushing forward and fighting for TRUTH and ACCOUNTABILITY. I won’t stop. You deserve it.”

By late December 2019, Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden Ben Echelson and his team filed a report with a short synopsis of what had really happened.

“Jack Elliott was pushed by Delaney Brennan from the front of a wakeboard boat … operated by Elle Weber under the supervision of Carson Neel.”

And the news got worse.

“Jack Elliott was struck by the propeller multiple times and was killed … the alcohol on board was thrown overboard.”

And then, this: “False statements were given to the officers responding to the accident concerning the events preceding the push and the manner in which Jack Elliott fell into the water.”

There it was. But Brett and Amy now had even more questions. Delaney and Jack were friends. Why would she push him overboard?

They would have to sue to find the answers.

‘Playful little shove’

The Elliotts filed a wrongful death suit in January 2020 against Carson, Delaney and Elle, hoping to force them to testify under penalty of perjury to the events surrounding Jack’s death.

By late 2020, several of the teens underwent questioning under oath or provided sworn statements about what they saw and what they did on the boat. Even though they often invoked the Fifth, details still emerged.

Several of the teens said Jack was sitting on the railing at the front of the boat, but one of the only people who actually saw what happened when Jack went overboard was Elle.

“Delaney and Jack were at the front of the boat, flirting and kissing. She gave Jack a ‘playful little shove’ and he fell off the boat,” Elle said in a sworn statement.

After the accident, another teen stated in an affidavit, Delaney kept saying, “He fell. I didn’t mean to push him.”

So distraught was Delaney that she later had Jack’s initials tattooed to her wrist.

“I did that because I wanted to always have something to remember him by,” she said in her sworn deposition. “When I looked down I wanted to remember how much he loved life and it kind of gave me a reminder to always live my life to the fullest and to do everything in life to basically live up to what he would have done.”

In her social media and to friends, Delaney professed her misery.

“I’m still messed up from this and my parents are here with me now, but we don’t know much still. I just feel like guilty … and I don’t think I have ever been this sad.

“I was the last person to touch him,” she said in a message to a friend.

The lawsuit was settled privately and confidentially.

Criminal charges

By late 2021, the justice system weighed in and criminal cases were presented to a Travis County grand jury, dealing mostly with the alleged cover-up.

Delaney Brennan was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with evidence by aiding in the deletion of a cellphone video. Carson Neel was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with physical evidence for allegedly dumping the alcohol overboard. If convicted, each faces up to 10 years in a Texas prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. Joshua Evans of Aliso Viejo, one of the teens on the boat, was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of furnishing alcohol to a minor, Anthony Salazar was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of perjury and Elle Weber was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of giving false information to a police officer.

As one of the fathers told the Elliotts and the teens in that Marriott meeting room: “If you don’t tell the truth … it comes back to bite you in the ass.”

Parents of Carson Neel, Delaney Brennan and Elle Weber declined to comment on behalf of their families. The parents of Caden Strauss, Joshua Evans and Anthony Salazar did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Elle, however, in a sworn affidavit said, “I was scared and in shock about what happened. I wish it had not happened and I wish I’d told police everything the first time.”

One student’s moment of honesty

One person on the boat decided to talk directly with Jack’s parents. Carly Martin, a former TCU student, traveled with her mother from Chicago to Orange County in December 2019 to tell the Elliotts what she knew — that Delaney pushed Jack.

“That was the hardest conversation I ever had to have in my life, telling parents how their son died and all the lies that surrounded it,” Carly, now 21, recently told the Southern California News Group. “It was mind-blowing how I was the only person on that boat with the decency to tell the parents the truth.”

Carly didn’t take part in the dishonest phone call. And she says she didn’t lie to the police. But she was so troubled by the accident and its aftermath that she quit TCU, quit college altogether.

Her conversation with the Elliotts was a cathartic moment for her. A moment of redemption.

“That conversation,” Carly said, “was the start of my healing.”

‘Be remembered’

After Jack’s death, Brett and Amy were going through his things and found a letter that he had written to himself, offering some advice from “A wise boy.”

“Life is short and hard, but giving up doesn’t make it easier,” he told himself.

And then, almost prophetically, Jack wrote: “Don’t fade to dust. Be remembered. Be loved. Be praised. Life will never end, your’s will, but memories carry for generations.”

A letter that Jack Elliott wrote to himself.A letter that Jack Elliott wrote to himself. (Courtesy of Elliott family) 

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