Boat crash trial underway in Lake County

July 28, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Three years and three months after a fatal boat crash on Clear Lake, the criminal trial got underway Tuesday. The I-Team has been raising questions that the wrong man is facing charges.

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It is the man who was steering the sailboat who is now on trial. The defense argues it is the powerboat driver, a top official in the Lake County Sheriff's Office, who should be facing charges.

It was a powerboat driven by Lake County sheriff's captain Russell Perdock that slammed into a sailboat, killing Lynn Thornton of Willows. But in his opening statement, prosecutor Jon Hopkins placed blame squarely on Bismarck Dinius, the man steering the sailboat, saying its running lights were not on.

"Failure to have running lights on is a substantial factor in the cause of the collision," said Hopkins. "And you will hear testimony that it would be reasonably foreseeable that a motorboat would collide with a sailboat without its lights on."

But defense attorney Victor Haltom pointed the blame back at the powerboat driver, Perdock, saying that the sailboat's lights were on and Perdock was speeding in the darkness.

"The powerboat is going so fast, that it literally devours the sailboat and unfortunately it hits right where lovely Lynn Thornton was sitting," said Haltom.

Haltom held up a placard with the witnesses who will testify that the sailboat's lights were on, that Perdock's boat was traveling 40 to 50 miles an hour and that he frequently drives fast.

One of the witnesses was his ex-wife, Donna Perdock.

"She has stated, 'that when Perdock is on his boat, he's got a need for speed,'" said Haltom.

After the opening statements, the prosecution called its first witnesses, James Ziebell. He testified he saw the sailboat's owner, Mark Weber, drinking before he took the boat out, but also that the sailboat's lights were on when it left the dock.

Hopkins: "Do you have any recollection of whether there were any lights associated with this boat?"

Ziebell: "Yes."

Hopkins: "What do you remember seeing?"

Ziebell: "The stern light."

The prosecutor is arguing the sailboat's lights somehow went off before the collision, but even his own witness expressed doubts about that theory.

"I would never turn off the light," said Ziebell. "I can't imagine any reason why I would."

The prosecutor next called Doug Jones, who told the I-Team two years ago that a Lake County sheriff's deputy refused to take his statement that he saw the sailboat's lights on.

"He says the sailboat didn't have any lights on, I say I saw the boat go by with lights on. He says you couldn't have and we can prove it," said Jones.

One of the chief prosecution witnesses is a fisherman who says he saw the sailboat before the crash with no lights on. But under cross examination, his story had problems. He did not see any people on the sailboat, and he did not see any sails up.

Haltom: "Did you see any sails on the boat the first time you saw it?"

Fisherman: "No."

There is no indication from the passengers on the sailboat that they took down their sails during the 40-minute cruise before the crash. Another prosecution witness, the other fisherman, testifed Perdock was going 45 to 50 miles an hour just before the crash.

The I-Team's Dan Noyes is following this story directly from inside the Lake County courthouse. Follow his updates from the trial on his Twitter page: twitter.com/dannoyes and check out his blog for a compilation of the day's events.

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