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EXCLUSIVE: Friends and family remember West Valley City man who drowned in Provo River

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WEST VALLEY CITY (ABC4 News) – “Funny, friendly, and faithful”: Those were the words used to describe Albert John “A.J.” Mapa, the returned missionary who drowned in the Provo River on Saturday. Mapa’s friends and family spoke exclusively to ABC4 News Monday to share the memories and legacy he leaves behind.

Soakai Faleao was one of Mapa’s missionary companions who was with him that day. He said it was supposed to be a fun day at the Provo River.

“We didn’t think anything like what happened was going to happen. We were laughing, we were joking, we were listening to songs, it was just a regular day,” said Faleao. “Everything went wrong so fast. Every time I close my eyes. I see that river and it scares me.”

Deputies with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office said Mapa jumped off a bridge, but didn’t make it out of the river. Search and Rescue crews found his body more than three hours later.

“His friends told me that when he jumped, he said, ‘I love you, everyone!’ and I think that’s the message he wanted to leave them,” said Siteli Lotulelei, Mapa’s aunt.

“I broke down immediately when I heard the news. I cried. I probably cried the hardest I did ever in my life,” said Toso Fehoko, Mapa’s best friend.

Mapa’s family said he just returned from a mission in Tonga for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October. They said he impacted many lives and always knew how to put a smile on someone’s face.

“If people were singing, he would just jump in. But he would mess up on purpose to get everybody’s attention. He would start dancing, even when no one else is dancing so he could get a laugh out of people or get people to smile,” said his brother, Ben Mapa.

“He was always the life of the party. He brought the light to everybody and I feel like, that’s pretty much what he was known for,” said Fehoko. “He had a positive outlook on everything. He was always the life of the party. He brought the light to everybody and I feel like, that’s pretty much what he was known for around the community.”

Teukisia Vaitai, Mapa’s girlfriend said he had big plans for the future, possibly a college degree in engineering and starting a family.

“Marriage was definitely a talk. Marriage was definitely being discussed,” said Vaitai. “Everything he did, everything we did, he tried to put God first and that’s just how he was raised. I’m so grateful for that because being around someone like him, it gives you the reassurance that everything’s going to be okay.”

His loved ones attribute his selfless, motivated, and outgoing personality to his mother, Lavinia Lapota Fifita.

“The whole time from when we left my house and even up there in the canyons, I thought I was being the strong one, but (Lavi)Nia comforted me and everybody else more than we had comforted her. I think that’s where A.J. gets his bubbly, contagious personality,” said Mapa’s aunt, Siteli.

“I’m proud to say that I was his mother for 21 years,” said Fifita. “I always told A.J. to ask someone to a dance that won’t be asked. Be that person that sits at a lunch table with someone that no one sits with.”

As Mapa’s loved ones prepare to lay him to rest, they said they find solace in knowing he’s looking down on them from above.

“He was here for a short time on this earth. But if anybody lived a full, happy life. It was that man,” said Darrion Faumuina, Mapa’s childhood friend.

“At the end of the day, I know he’s happy. I know he’s in a better place and he’s reunited with his loved ones on the other side,” said Fehoko.

“I think A.J. completed his mission here on Earth. He served in Tonga, fully two years. He served with his brothers. His companions were his brother,” said Mapa’s cousin, Bubba Lotulelei. “I think our heavenly father was proud of A.J.”

“I blame no one. He left this earth with a bunch of good friends, people he loved and left an impression on everybody he met, no matter how small of a relationship it was,” said Fifita.

Mapa’s family said his funeral is anticipated for Saturday, but plans will not be finalized until he is released from the medical examiner’s office.

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