BY Shirley Hatch, Branford News Publisher

Matthew J. Alford of Live Oak has pleaded guilty to the drowning death of Branford High School graduate Richard Drew Combee, who resided with his family near McAlpin.

Alford was 18 years old at the time of the boating mishap which occurred June 22, 2003 while he, Combee and two other companions were boating and skiing on the Suwannee and Santa Fe River. Combee was 19 years old at the time of his death. His body was found 24 hours later approximately 700 yards downstream from the accident scene. According to a report from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Combee sustained massive trauma to his head. The cause of death was determined to be from drowning, the report said.

Alford was determined to be the operator of the vessel the four young people were boating in. He was arrested in September and charged with boating under the influence (BUI) manslaughter; false report to a law enforcement officer; possession of alcoholic beverages by a person under the age of 21; tampering with evidence; witness harassment and witness tampering.

At the time of the mishap an 18 year old female juvenile, and a male Robert Thon 20, were also occupants in the boat, a 20 foot Monterey.

Alford entered into a plea agreement with the Third Circuit State Attorney's office and pled guilty before acting Third Circuit Judge Hank Land in Mayo last Monday, according to Third Circuit Assistant State Attorney David Fina. According to Fina, Alford pled guilty to boating under the influence manslaughter, possession of alcoholic beverages by a person under 21, tampering with evidence and false report to a law enforcement officer in the death of Combee.

Fina told the News that under the plea bargain, if Judge Land chooses to abide by that agreement, the State recommends Alford spent the next four years in the Florida Department of Corrections as a youthful offender, followed by two years probation. Alford would be recommended for the boot camp program and must also pay restitution and all other costs for the case.

According to Assistant State Attorney Fina, Combee's family agreed to the plea bargain.

Angie Combee mother of Drew told the News Monday, "this has been a long rocky road. We are as satisfied as we can be, about the plea. Nothing will ever bring Drew back to us. As a family we need to have some closure with the situation. We were advised by Mr. Fina this was what we should accept."

Alford is free on bond. Sentencing is scheduled for May 10 at 9 a.m. in the Lafayette County Court house in Mayo before Judge Hank Land.

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