CREVE COEUR — From minibikes to watercraft, Rex Monroe loved engines and speed.
"If there was a motor in it, he'd been on it," said his brother, Chris Monroe.
Sunday, Rex Monroe took his last ride. On the Illinois River, in an area notorious for strong currents, he fell off a Jet Ski and drowned.
The lifeless Peorian was pulled from the river by rescue personnel. He was not wearing a lifejacket.
"He wasn't a safety-precaution taker," Chris Monroe said. "He didn't wear helmets on bikes either. That wasn't him. That was part of the thrill."
He said the Sunday mishap marked yet another intense and tumultuous episode of his brother's oft-rough-and-tumble 49 years.
"That boy lived a life, a very full life," said Chris Monroe, 47, of Manito. "And not all of it was good, but not all of it was bad."
They brothers grew up in Peoria. In their youth, they liked to fish and hunt. They also enjoyed working and riding on fast-moving cars, minibikes and other machines.
"He was a thrill-seeking type," his brother said.
As a young man, Rex Monroe became something of an iconoclast.
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"He went against the grain, not following the rules," his brother said. "Like, he'd get mad about the way the government treated people. I respected that."
But Rex Monroe became prone to choices that sometimes proved shortsighted, in part from a bipolar disorder that went largely untreated, his brother said.
"He got caught up in addiction," his brother said. "He had some issues in his day. And he had challenges because of those issues."
Rex Monroe's police record was dotted with traffic citations, including DUIs. Multiple arrests included batteries. Sometimes, as a bodybuilder with a reputation for toughness, he was goaded into fisticuffs, his brother said.
"He was a scrapper," his brother said. "That's why people wanted to test him. They wanted to see how they'd stack up against him.
"He'd clean all their clocks."
Sometimes, his scuffles involved police.
"He was not perfect," his brother said. "He had been to prison."
Still, his brother said, Rex Monroe had a softer side. He liked to help people, and he'd often blow his pipefitter's paychecks on others, especially at Christmas. He'd spend many Sunday mornings at Riverside Community Church, a weekly habit he had learned in childhood.
"He was a genuinely wonderful-hearted person," his brother said. "If you were in a bind, he'd be there for you. If you were in trouble, you'd want him on your side."
Friends echoed that estimation.
"He [offered] a sense of protection when you were with him," said Angela Simmons-Williams, 39, of Morton. "Like, you knew you were not in harm's way when he was around. He wouldn't let anything happen to the ones he loved."
Melissa Raye Lindsey said he nearly literally would give you the shirt off his back.
"I had ripped a really nice shirt one day while bartending," said Lindsey, 53, of East Peoria. "Rex went and got me one of his T-shirts to wear so I didn't have to wear a ripped shirt. He told me I was too cute to be wearing a ripped shirt and made my day by giving me one of his to wear."
"He had the most beautiful smile and a big beautiful heart. Always a fun time."
He was after a fun time on Sunday. He and two friends borrowed a pair of Jet Skis, arriving shortly before 6:30 p.m. at a boat ramp off Wesley Road in Creve Coeur.
The ignition on one of the Jet Skis wouldn't immediately turn over. So, as the two friends tried to make repairs, Rex Monroe took the other Jet Ski onto the river, his brother said. About 50 feet from the ramp, while doing circles, Monroe fell off the device. He yelled for help, prompting a 911 call from a nearby pub.
That area is know for fast and dangerous currents, said Mike Johnson, chief of the Fon du Lac Park District Police Department, part of the rescue effort. The narrow banks and heavy barge traffic often turn the river swift and choppy, especially if the nearby lock and dam is lowered, Johnson said. Even trained divers disdain that stretch of the river.
"It's terrible," Johnson said.
Despite that spot's scary reputation, many river enthusiasts do not routinely take the extra precautions.
"We try to encourage them to take a basic safety class, so you know what areas to stay away from," Johnson said.
Late Sunday, Monroe's two friends told police that they hadn't considered any perils along that slice of the river.
"They had no idea it would be dangerous," Johnson said.
He is unsure why Monroe fell off the Jet Ski. Though toxicology tests are still underway, beer cans were found with the Jet Ski and Monroe had alcohol in his stomach, the chief said.
"That could be a factor," Johnson said. "He didn't have enough strength, without a life jacket, to get back to the Jet Ski."
Chris Monroe expressed surprise that his brother could not save himself. Not only had Rex Monroe been experienced with Jet Skis, but his brother had previously seen him swim long distances in water, sometimes even after drinking alcohol.
"He was a strong swimmer," Chris Monroe said.
After Rex Monroe fell into the river, his two friends swam out and tried to help him. One tried to grab a hold of Monroe, who panicked and tried to return the grab, Johnson said. At that, the friend broke away, and the two friends became distanced from Monroe.
"That's the best thing that could've happened," Johnson said. "Otherwise, we would've pulled out three bodies instead of one."
The Peoria Fire Department Boat and Dive Team arrived and helped the friends out of the water. By that time, Monroe had vanished, but a Fon du Lac Park District Police Department boat located his body underwater with sonar. Despite the fast current and zero visibility, divers pulled the lifeless Monroe from the river.
He was pronounced dead at the scene at 7:50 p.m. An autopsy Monday showed Monroe's body had suffered no trauma: he had drowned.
"He was known for living on the edge and enjoying life to the fullest," his obituary noted. "He will be remembered as a free spirit that lived hard, rode hard, and loved hard."
His funeral will be Thursday, with burial to follow at Lutheran Cemetery in Peoria.
"I know he went to heaven," his brother said. "I know that because as boys we both accepted Christ."
Phil Luciano is a Journal Star columnist.