Judge says boat pilot should stand trial

June 11, 2008 8:05:18 PM PDT
A judge ruled on Wednesday that the man who happened to be steering a sailboat at night when a power boat hit it should stand trial for manslaughter.

Sailors across California and the country have been watching this case.

"I don't think the defendant left on that boat that night with the intention to kill anybody," said Lake County Superior Court Judge Richard Martin.

Judge Martin sided with the prosecution, ruling that Bismarck Dinius should stand trial for manslaughter.

"This was a -- it wasn't an accident. It was negligence on the part of the defendant," said Martin.

Dinius was steering his friend's sailboat on Clear Lake one night in April 2006 when a speedboat driven by the number two official in the Lake County Sheriff's Department slammed into them.

A passenger on the sailboat, Lynn Thornton of Willows, died. The district attorney only charged Dinius. He had been drinking at the time and prosecutors claim the sailboat's navigation lights were off.

"It's a very tragic and unfortunate case. But this collision could have been prevented if that stern light was on," said Lake County prosecutor John Langan.

The prosecution relies, in part, on a photograph of the sailboat's breaker panel that shows the cabin lights on, but the running lights off. But is that picture reliable?

The head of marine investigations for the Lake County sheriff admitted he left the sailboat in the water unguarded for six hours, the morning after the crash.

Victor Haltom: "You don't know if somebody got on that boat, that sailboat between 3:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.?"

Dennis Ostini from Lake County Sheriff's Department: "That's correct."

Haltom: "Somebody could have manipulated the light switches for instance, you don't know one way or another."

Ostini: "No, I don't, sir. No, I don't."

The driver of the power boat, Chief Deputy Russell Perdock, testified there's no speed limit on Clear Lake, even at night. But he admitted knowing that state and federal boat safety laws apply.

Perdock: "To the best of my recollection, it's that you're able to either avert your course or be able to stop."

Haltom: "How about just drive at a reasonably safe speed?"

Perdock: "Okay."

Haltom: "Does that sound like-"

Perdock: "That sounds reasonable, yup."

Perdock's powerboat was traveling a reported 40 to 50 miles an hour just before the crash, but the issue of the sailboat's lights won the day.

"That is a foreseeable consequence, that is a collision of boats between boats if one doesn't have their lights on," said Martin.

"Little shocked about it, disappointed, very disappointed," said Dinius.

Now, Dinius has to hope that a jury sees the case differently. He's heading for a trial date in the fall.

"I never imagined it would get to this point, but here we are, so I'm living my worst case scenario at this point," said Dinius.

Dinius had hoped to have the matter resolved by the time he gets married later this month. Instead, he'll head off on his honeymoon with the trial and a possible prison sentence hanging over his head.

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