Unusual tactics by boat crash investigators

August 23, 2007 12:00:00 AM PDT
A powerboat driven by the number two official in the Lake County Sheriff's Department slammed into a sailboat at night, killing a woman, and it's the man steering the sailboat who's facing manslaughter charges. The case heads to court next week.

A blood test shows the man steering the sailboat was under the influence of alcohol at the time, but the district attorney tells us he based the manslaughter charge on one accusation -- that the sailboat's running lights were off at the time of the crash.

"Right before we got hit, I heard something. I heard 'vrrrr,' and I saw a light and I turned," said Zina Dotti, a sailboat passenger.

Santa Rosa resident Zina Dotti was the only person on the sailboat that night who saw a speedboat driven by Lake County Chief Deputy Sheriff Russell Perdock bearing down on them.

"And I saw something coming, turned back and said, 'we're gonna get hit.' Ed said I didn't even get 'hit' out," said Dotti.

"She didn't even finish 'hit,'" said Ed Dominguez.

Dotti described it as being "plowed."

"And the noise was right there... then it was like a 'bawoooh' so I don't know if it was him maybe even coming back off the accelerator, but you could hear the 'bawoooh,' and then that was it, and it was -- (crashing sound),'" said Dominguez.

Perdock's 385-horsepower speedboat slammed into the rear of the sailboat with such force it flew on top of the sailboat, smashing the cabin, snapping the mast, landing in the water on the other side. The sailboat owner's fiancé, 51-year-old Lynn Thornton of Willows, lay dying inside the cockpit when Perdock approached in his boat.

"He said, 'you didn't have your lights on.' That's the first thing out of his mouth," explained Dotti.

"That's the first thing he asked, didn't ask how anybody was, didn't ask anything. He said, 'you guys didn't have your f-ing lights on,' as loud as he possibly could," said Dominguez.

The sailboat's owner, Mark Weber, had been knocked unconscious. So, Perdock had to wait until they got to shore to hear Weber's answer.

Zina Dotti: "He was yelling, he was yelling."

Dan Noyes: "And he said what?"

Zina Dotti: "I had my lights on, I had my f-ing lights on.'"

Dan Noyes: "He was yelling at--"

Zina Dotti: "At Perdock."

Now, more than a year later, that's the central issue in the criminal case. Prosecutors have filed manslaughter charges, not against the chief deputy who was driving the powerboat, but against the man who happened to be steering the sailboat. The district attorney contends Bismarck Dinius is at fault because the sailboat's lights were off.

Dan Noyes: "You have though, some conflicting testimony whether the lights were on or not."

Jon Hopkins, Lake County D.A.: "No."

Dan Noyes: "There are several people who saw the lights on."

John Hopkins: "No, there are not."

"I saw clearly the cabin light and the stern light," said Doug Jones, a witness.

In previous I-Team reports, we identified nine people, on the sailboat and on shore, who say the sailboat's cabin lights, running lights or both were on.

Now, let's take a look at the prosecution's case and their witnesses who supposedly saw the sailboat with its lights off just before the crash. The D.A. is relying on seven people -- first, teenage girls who were hanging out on the shores of Clear Lake that night when they spotted Perdock's powerboat.

One of those witnesses, Gina Seago, said, "I was just watching the boat go by, and all of a sudden, it hit something. I didn't see what it had hit."

A sheriff's deputy took the unusual step of interviewing the girls, handwriting their statements for them, and asking them to sign.

"It undermines the credibility of the witness herself," explained ABC7 Legal Analyst, Dean Johnson.

Johnson says there are serious problems with a deputy handwriting statements for witnesses. He's never seen it in 25 years of practicing criminal law. He says it provides an opening for an aggressive defense attorney.

"Madam witness, you didn't write this statement, did you? Somebody wrote that for you. Neither one of you wrote these statements. Did you? No. Who wrote these statements? The deputy? The deputy who works for somebody else who could be a potential suspect in this case. Right? Yes. Are these your words, or did somebody put them in your mouth?" said Johnson.

The deputy wrote, "that boat," meaning the sailboat, "was dark, it had no lights on that I could see." However, the girls admitted to us they couldn't tell for sure whether the sailboat's lights were on or off before the crash. They didn't even notice the sailboat until the powerboat hit it, and the accident happened 300 to 500 yards off shore from where the girls sat.

Dan Noyes: "You didn't see the sailboat before the impact, is that true?"

Jennifer Patterson, Witness: "That's correct, yeah."

Because they didn't see the sailboat before the crash, the district attorney may argue that's proof the lights were off.

There are also issues with the next two prosecution witnesses -- fishermen out on Clear Lake that night, practicing for a catfish derby. We've been able to piece together their stories from sheriff's reports and recorded interviews with an investigator from the D.A.'s Office provided by the defense.

"That sailboat's lights definitely were not on," said Tony Esposti, a fisherman.

The sheriff's report says the fishermen "using a spotlight ... illuminated a white sailboat with several persons on board," that it "did not have its navigation lights on," and the fishermen "circled the sailboat twice" just before the crash.

Dan Noyes: "Before the crash, did you see any fishermen?"

Zina Dotti: "No."

Dan Noyes: "Did you ever see a spotlight shined onto the boat?"

Zina Dotti: "No, no."

One of the fishermen told the D.A.'s investigator a different story -- that they only saw the sailboat before dark.

"We saw it a few times, but when it turned dark, we never, I mean, we never saw it again," said Esposti.

And they didn't use a spotlight until after the crash, again, contradicting the sheriff's report.

Tony Esposti: "After we had figured that they had collided."

D.A. Investigator: "Oh, okay, so you spotlighted it after the collision."

Tony Esposti: "Yes."

D.A. Investigator: "Okay."

The fishermen also say they first saw the sailboat out on the water just after six that evening, when "Beats Workin' 2" was actually docked. It finally headed out on that last sunset cruise more than two hours later.

These inconsistencies in the investigation are difficult to handle for the man charged in Lynn Thornton's death.

"I could go to prison for this, simple, you talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. 'Hey, you want to go for a ride.' The next thing you know, I'm being charged for manslaughter of this person," said Bismarck Dinius.

The prosecution has three final witnesses who claim the sailboat had no lights -- the people on the powerboat -- Chief Deputy Perdock, his longtime friend James Walker and Walker's 14-year-old daughter.

However, the girl raises an interesting point. She told a deputy she saw the sailboat "with its mast and white sail" three seconds before impact. Should that have been enough time for Perdock to take evasive action? And, if not, should he have been driving more slowly that night than the 40 to 45 miles an hour he told an investigator?

Those are issues being discussed in negotiations underway to settle the many lawsuits in the boat crash. The sailboat owner and his fiancé's son say the wrong man's facing criminal charges.

"Justice is not, you know, it's not being served the right way, and hopefully the real people at fault will get what's coming to 'em," said John Thornton, the victim's son.

"It's completely wrong, absolutely wrong, they're hiding behind the badge and that's the bottom line. Bismarck did nothing wrong on that boat that night, absolutely nothing," Mark Weber, the owner of the sailboat.

In the past, Perdock told us he followed all boating laws that night. A Department of Justice report on the sailboat's lights says tests on the bow and mast lights could not determine if they were off or on at the time of the crash. It also says the tests "were consistent" with the stern or rear light being off. That's a major point of contention in both the civil and criminal cases.

The I-Team will be there in court next week when a judge takes up the defense motion to remove the Lake County D.A. from the case.

There are many issues concerning the sailboat's lights. We have new evidence pictures and a discussion of why they may or may not have been on that night in the I-Team blog here.

Read Dan Noyes' blog on the latest developments.

Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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