Fatal boat crash: Witnesses tell different story

August 14, 2007 12:00:00 AM PDT
A woman was killed in a fatal boating accident in Lake County when a high-ranking official in the Lake County Sheriff's Department slammed his speed boat into a sailboat on Clear Lake. However, it is the man steering the sailboat who is now facing charges. New evidence is really raising questions about how this case is being handled.

The most surprising fact we uncovered is that Sheriff's investigators apparently refused to take statements from two witnesses. They have first hand information that could make a case against the driver of the power boat, the chief deputy sheriff.

Dan Noyes: "I'd like to talk to you, tomorrow maybe, are you going to be available for us?"

Russell Perdock, Chief Deputy Sheriff: "No, I won't."

Russell Perdock doesn't want to talk about what happened on Clear Lake in April 2006. The number two man in the Lake County Sheriff's Department slammed his 385-horsepower speedboat into a sailboat at night, killing Lynn Thornton of Willows. Now it's not Perdock who's facing charges in the death, but the man who happened to be steering the sailboat at the time.

Bismarck Dinius "I couldn't believe that he was not charged and that they were going after me."

Prosecutor Jon Hopkins contends Bismarck Dinius should be found guilty of manslaughter because the sailboat's running lights were off at the time of the crash.

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

Jon Hopkins, Lake County District Attorney: "No."

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

Jon Hopkins, Lake County District Attorney: "No, there are not."

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

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

Doug Jones watched "Beats Workin' II" sail past his marina with lights on, before the crash. But when he spoke with a deputy sheriff the next morning, he says it seemed the case had already been solved.

Doug Jones, witness: "A deputy sheriff came over the following morning and told me that they had already proven that there were no lights on."

Dan Noyes: "The following morning?"

Doug Jones: "The following morning."

Dan Noyes: "That was fast."

Doug Jones: "At eight o'clock in the morning."

Worse still, Jones says the deputy refused to take his statement.

Doug Jones: "And at that point, I told him I saw the cabin and stern light."

Dan Noyes: "What did he say?"

Doug Jones: "You couldn't have."

Dan Noyes: "He said that you couldn't have."

Doug Jones: "I couldn't have and left."

Peter Elmer, retired police sergeant: "I think something's not right here."

Peter Elmer had the same experience. The retired police sergeant from East Bay Regional Parks oversaw the marine unit there. Elmer says he tried to tell the Lake County Sheriff's Department he spotted Perdock driving 50 miles an hour right before the crash, but claims they refused to take his statement, as well.

Peter Elmer, retired police sergeant: "I called back and said, 'listen, a deputy needs to come talk to us,' and they said, 'no, that's okay.' Well, putting that in perspective and the fact that he hasn't been charged, I thought something's not right here."

Dan Noyes: "Two witnesses who say they had firsthand knowledge of what happened say your deputies resisted taking their statements. From their perspective, it seems like you decided from the beginning that Russell Perdock could not be at fault. Your response to that?"

Rodney Mitchell, Lake County Sheriff: "I would ask you to identify who those people are who said that and then we'll follow up to make sure that's not the case."

After our interview, Sheriff Mitchell had his investigators contact Peter Elmer and Doug Jones -- their statements are now part of the case file. But the Lake County prosecutor tried to downplay the importance of witness testimony, after all, the accident happened 300 to 500 yards off shore.

Jon Hopkins: "How good is somebody's wild guess from shore, as to the speed of the boat."

Dan Noyes: "But Perdock says himself it was 40 or 45. Is that in your mind unsafe?"

Jon Hopkins: "Well, in a, in a -- I can't tell you what's safe and unsafe."

Perdock told investigators he was driving 40-45 miles an hour on a dark, moonless night.

Zina Dotti, sailboat passenger: "We were just driving along, I guess."

And people involved in the accident told deputies from the beginning that Perdock was driving too fast. This is a sheriff's department interview with Zina Dotti, a passenger on the sailboat.

Zina Dotti, sailboat passenger: "And it was like I saw this boat right like there. And I said, 'we're going to get hit.' I turned to Ed and said, 'they're going to hit us,' and the next thing I know, pow."

Deputy: "Was the boat going fast?"

Zina Dotti: "Oh my god, it was hauling. It was going very, very, very fast."

Lake County authorities commissioned an independent investigation by the Sacramento Sheriff's Marine Unit. It concluded Russell Perdock broke federal navigation laws by failing to maintain a safe speed.

Dan Noyes: "That's what the Sacramento Sheriff's Office concluded, and you didn't charge Perdock for operating his boat at an unsafe speed. Why not?"

Jon Hopkins, Lake County District Attorney: "Our charges in this case were based on what we can prove in terms of criminal negligence."

And, the Sacramento Sheriff's report did not recommend prosecuting Perdock. The defense attorney for Bismarck Dinius says Lake County's Sheriff and District Attorney have not carried out a fair and impartial investigation.

Victor Haltom, Dinius defense attorney: "It makes sense, they handle their cases together, and in this case, it just seems obvious that the Lake County District Attorney's Office is protecting one of their own."

The same independent investigation found that Bismarck Dinius and the sailboat owner, Mark Weber, failed to turn on running lights or keep a lookout. Blood tests the night of the accident showed they were both under the influence of alcohol.

Russell Perdock's blood test came back clean, but the label on his blood sample shows he wasn't tested until more than 24 hours after the accident. A sheriff's deputy filed an addendum to say the technician had made a mistake -- Perdock really had his blood test 11:30 the night of the crash.

Zina Dotti: "I don't think that's correct at all."

But, passengers from the sailboat were adamant -- they saw Perdock at the scene from the time of the crash, well past midnight.

Zina Dotti: "It was like 12:30 when we finally had got a deputy to bring us to our car."

Investigator: "Okay, and you're saying that the driver of the speedboat was still there."

Zina Dotti: "Yes, he was there the whole time we were there."

Russel Perdock refuses to address any of these issues on advice of his attorneys.

Dan Noyes: "I wonder if you feel bad about this other guy taking the blame for what happened?"

Russell Perdock, Chief Deputy Sheriff: "See you later."

Perdock's still working as the number two man in the Lake County Sheriff's office, and the man now facing manslaughter charges in the boat crash is furious about it.

Bismarck Dinius: "I would tell him do the right thing, I think you should step down, resign from his position, and take it like a man."

It may be telling that Russell Perdock was never listed as a suspect in the investigative reports -- it was only Bismarck Dinius or the sailboat's owner, Mark Weber.

Read part one of this story: Fatal Boat Crash: Wrong Man Charged?

Click to here read Dan's blog: Lynn's Story and Reaction.

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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