Fatal boat crash: Wrong man charged?

August 13, 2007 12:00:00 AM PDT
Authorities in Lake County are being accused of trying to protect one of their own. The number two man in the Lake County Sheriff's Department was involved in a boating accident that killed a woman on Clear Lake, 50 miles north of Santa Rosa.

It might seem like a simple case at first glance. A power boat slams into a sailboat at night, killing a woman. However, one person's been charged in the death, not the power boat driver or the sailboat owner, but the man who happened to be steering the sailboat.

April 29th, 2006 started out as a good day for Bismarck Dinius. He sailed in a regatta on Clear Lake, ate dinner at a local yacht club, and headed out for a sunset cruise on a friend's boat.

Bismarck Dinius: "Just one of those chance things, they were heading their way down towards the dock and you know, running across me, 'hey, we're going out right now, do you want to go for a ride?'"

It was a dark night on the water with no moon and very little wind. The five friends sailed for about half an hour, then turned back toward the dock. They didn't see the power boat bearing down on them.

Peter Elmer, Retired Police Sergeant: "My estimate was about 50 miles an hour, which is quite fast, especially at nighttime."

People on shore watched this tragedy unfold, including a retired police sergeant who oversaw the marine unit for East Bay Regional Parks.

Peter Elmer: "I said to everybody who was sitting on the dock, 'there's a clown that's either going to kill himself or somebody else.' I kind of regret saying that now, but I knew immediately that this guy was going way too fast for the conditions."

The power boat hit the sailboat from the rear with tremendous force. It flew on top of the sailboat, crushing the cabin, snapping the mast, landing in the water in front of the sailboat.

Jennifer Patterson, witness: "All of a sudden, everybody started screaming."

Gina Seago: "They were all calling for help, 'somebody help us', and everything."

Dispatch Tape:

Dispatcher: "Central."

"Hi, it's Perdock."

Dispatcher: "Hello."

"I just hit a -- Konocti Bay, I was out for a boat ride."

The owner of the power boat, Lake County's Chief Deputy Sheriff Russell Perdock, called his office for help.

Dispatch Tape:

Dispatcher: "Is anybody injured?"

"Yes, I've got two people unconscious, looks like bleeding bad."

Each of the eight people involved in the accident was injured, from cuts and bruises to broken ribs and concussions. The most seriously was Lynn Thornton, the fiancee of the sailboat's owner, Mark Weber.

Mark Weber: "She was an angel, an absolute angel."

Lynn Thornton died a few days after the crash. She had just retired as chief investigator for the State Dental Board. She and Weber were planning a move to Texas to be near family.

Mark Weber: boat owner: "I don't know what the future's going to bring, no idea."

Dan Noyes: "So now, it's just one foot in front of another?"

Mark Weber: "That's exactly how it is, yeah, and you just gotta keep doing that because the option isn't very good."

The question became, who should face charges in Lynn Thornton's death? To Mark Weber and Bismarck Dinius it was obvious...

Dinius Bismarck : "He's taken somebody's life."

...the man behind the wheel of the power boat, Chief Deputy Sheriff Russell Perdock.

Bismarck Dinius: "But I think as soon as I found out it was a deputy sheriff that was involved, I knew, I knew that I was in trouble. I knew it was going to get serious."

He was right to be worried. Exactly one year after Lynn Thornton died the Lake County district attorney charged Bismarck Dinius with manslaughter. The accusation was that the sailboat's running lights were off and Dinius was responsible because he was steering the boat at the time.

Jon Hopkins, Lake County District Attorney: "The person at the-- who's the operator has the responsibility for making sure they're operating in a safe manner."

But there may be problems with the case for prosecutor Jon Hopkins.

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

Jon Hopkins: "No."

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

Jon Hopkins: "No, there are not."

Doug Jones owns a marina on Clear Lake.

Dan Noyes: "You're sure you saw that sailboat with lights on?"

Doug Jones, witness: "I'm sure."

He says he watched the sailboat "Beats Workin' Two" head out on that sunset cruise.

Doug Jones: "First, he turned his cabin light on. I thought that was a strange light, strange shape, and then a few moments later, the stern light came on, a very bright single lens light."

From the prosecution's own files, other witnesses on shore report seeing running lights on both boats at the time of impact.

Investigator: "Now, did you actually see the lights come together or--?"

Brian Stole, witness: "Yeah, I actually saw, saw the lights come together."

Few people dispute the sailboat had its cabin lights on just before the crash. We took the same model of boat out one night last week, under similar conditions. Even without running lights, just cabin lights -- the boat's visible.

Bismarck Dinius: "It would have been impossible to miss us. If you see a lighted cabin, it's pretty much like your back patio being lit up."

Authorities in Lake County commissioned an independent investigator from the Sacramento Sheriff's Office Marine Division who concluded there was blame to go around -- that Bismarck Dinius and Mark Weber broke federal navigation laws by failing to turn on the running lights and failing to keep a lookout. The report didn't recommend prosecution of Perdock, but it did conclude the chief deputy sheriff broke the law by failing to maintain a safe speed.

The lake county prosecutor defends not filing charges against Perdock.

Jon Hopkins: "The problem is when you don't have a speed limit and you've got to rely on the safe speed laws, the issue is very vague."

It's true, there is no speed limit on Clear Lake, even at night, but there are state and federal laws that apply.

Dan Noyes: "What's the basic rule of speed on the water?"

David Guthrie, Sacramento County Sheriff's Department: "Speed is basically a safe speed."

A marine investigator from the Sacramento Sheriff's Office wouldn't comment directly on this case, but he pointed us to California boating law. It says, "an operator should be prepared to stop a vessel within the space of half the distance of forward visibility."

David Guthrie says that's a very short distance at night.

David Guthrie: "The prudent mariner would say I should just go idle speed because I know that even if I do hit him, it's just going to be a little fender bender, there's not going to be a loss of life, there's not going to be injured. So basically, you can't outrun your eyesight."

Perdock himself told investigators he was driving 40 to 45 miles an hour. That's 59 to 66-feet per second on a moonless night.

The D.A. won't even admit that speed played a role in what happened.

Dan Noyes: "If Chief Deputy Perdock was going 10 miles an hour, would Lynn Thornton have died?"

Jon Hopkins: "I can't answer that."

Russell Perdock didn't return our calls for an interview, so we caught up to him at the sheriff's office in Lakeport.

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

Russell Perdock: "See you later."

After he drove away, Perdock left a message on our voicemail. He said Lynn Thornton "lost her life due to the negligence of another."

Russell Perdock (by phone): "I was enjoying an evening boat ride with friends, driving safely and obeying all the laws that are required, while others did not."

Victor Haltom, Dinius Defense Attorney: "I don't see how anybody can look at that set of facts and not say that he is a major factor in causing this accident."

The defense attorney for Bismarck Dinius is gearing up for a fight. His first move is to ask a judge to remove the Lake County District Attorney's Office from the case.

Dan Noyes: "What do you think's happening here?"

Victor Haltom: "My honest opinion? I think it's a good ol' boy's network. They're protecting one of their own."

It didn't help Bismarck Dinius' case that he was found to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash. The blood test on Russell Perdock came back clean, but there are questions about that test and about how the sheriff's department handled other aspects of this case.

For more on this story, 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.