October 10, 2012

Marine Patrol seizes boat involved in fatal collision off Littlejohn Island

The 39-foot cabin cruiser is considered 'evidence of a criminal offense.'

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Marine Patrol has seized a 39-foot Sea Ray cabin cruiser as part of a criminal probe into a crash off Littlejohn Island on Sept. 21 that killed a man who was in an aluminum skiff.

click image to enlarge

This photo taken by a witness just after the Sept. 21 boating accident shows the overturned skiff, left, the cabin cruiser, right, with the Coast Guard Auxiliary pulling a man from the water.

Courtesy photo

click image to enlarge

A 14-foot aluminum skiff shows damage from the fatal collision with a cabin cruiser near Littlejohn Island on Sept. 21.

Courtesy Sgt. Rob Beals of Maine Marine Patrol

The seizure was based in part on statements from witnesses who said the larger boat appeared to speed up and change course just before the collision.

Lisa Wilson, who saw the crash from Littlejohn Island, is quoted in court papers as saying, "It almost appeared that the Sea Ray was trying to overtake the skiff and the trawler," referring to a Coast Guard Auxiliary boat.

The Marine Patrol filed a search warrant in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court indicating that it had seized the cabin cruiser, which is moored at Spring Point Marina, and all of its contents.

"I believe that the above listed property constitutes evidence of a criminal offense," wrote Sgt. Robert Beal, who is leading the investigation.

The Sea Ray Sundancer 390, named The Best, is owned by Richard Lemieux of Scarborough and Foxborough Mass., who was at the helm when the crash occurred, authorities say.

Efforts to reach Lemieux were unsuccessful.

The crash killed Charles "Bill" Whetham, a longtime Chebeague Island resident who lived on the mainland in recent years but continued his landscaping business on the island.

Whetham was going home after a day of work, piloting his aluminum skiff across the channel from Chebeague Island to Cousins Island.

Lemieux was piloting his boat west, through the narrow channel between Littlejohn Island to the north and rocks to the south.

The boats collided at 5:15 p.m., knocking Whetham into the water. He was pulled from the water by members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary who happened to be in the area.

He was breathing but incoherent, according to the affidavit filed by Beal. Whetham was taken to shore and then to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was pronounced dead about 50 minutes after the crash.

Ken Cyll, a member of the four-man crew on the Coast Guard Auxiliary boat Spirit, said a large blue-and-white boat was passing when he saw an aluminum skiff parallel to the Spirit, according to an affidavit in support of the search warrant.

Cyll lost sight of the skiff, then saw it under the bow of the cabin cruiser, the papers said.

The affidavit cites crew members' statements but does not include any more information from them.

It also describes the interview with Lisa Wilson, who said she saw the crash from Littlejohn Island.

She said the skiff and the cabin cruiser were converging, then the larger boat changed its course to the west and accelerated, the papers say.

She told the Marine Patrol that it appeared the operator of the large boat was trying to overtake the skiff and the Coast Guard Auxiliary boat, which she described as a trawler.

She said she lost sight of the skiff and assumed that the boats hadn't collided because the cabin cruiser maintained its course and heading. The Coast Guard Auxiliary boat turned into the larger boat's wake, then she saw the capsized skiff and a man struggling in the water, she said.

The search warrant was approved by a Superior Court justice on Sept. 25, four days after the crash.

The Marine Patrol sought to seize the cabin cruiser, its equipment and the electronics used to operate the boat.

Beal could not be reached Wednesday, but Marine Patrol Lt. Jonathan Cornish said investigators are not ready to bring any charges.

"We're really not at a point where we're going to make any kind of allegations," Cornish said. "We thought we needed the boat to do a proper investigation. That's why we took the boat, to look into the causes of the accident."

Cornish said investigators will work with a prosecutor in the coming days to determine what, if any, charges should be brought.

He said, "The captain of a boat has a responsibility to know what's in front of him and to do whatever he can to avoid an accident."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

 

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