published Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Trial begins in case of Tennessee River barge crash that killed two

Defendant Charles Warren Luetke, left, and his attorney Sam Hudson walk through the City-County Courts Building halls Tuesday in Chattanooga during a recess from the first day of testimony in Luetke's trial. Luetke is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2010 deaths of two boaters on the Tennessee River after the tugboat and barges he was piloting struck their fishing boat.
Defendant Charles Warren Luetke, left, and his attorney Sam Hudson walk through the City-County Courts Building halls Tuesday in Chattanooga during a recess from the first day of testimony in Luetke's trial. Luetke is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2010 deaths of two boaters on the Tennessee River after the tugboat and barges he was piloting struck their fishing boat.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Witness Andrew Thompson, right, points to a map held by prosecutor Cameron Williams while giving testimony Tuesday at the City-County Courts Building in Chattanooga during the first day of testimony in the trial of Charles Warren Luetke. Luetke is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2010 deaths of two boaters on the Tennessee River after the tugboat and barges he was piloting struck their fishing boat.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Should a towboat captain on the Tennessee River have had a lookout as he pushed a 647-foot-long, 21-foot-tall wall of nine barges?

Should three men in a fishing boat at 5 p.m. on a clear, sunny Saturday afternoon have had a reliable motor? Looked up from their trot line of catfish? Been sober while on the water that day?

A jury chosen Tuesday will consider these crucial questions as it hears testimony this week in the criminally negligent homicide trial of Charles Warren Luetke, 42. He was the captain of a Serodino MV Bearcat towboat that ran over David "Chris" Wilkey's 16-foot fishing boat on June 19, 2010, killing the two men with Wilkey.

On Tuesday, Prosecutor Lance Pope walked through the duties of the towboat's crew that day for the jury in Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom.

Shortly before the collision there is a shift change. Luetke is in the wheelhouse. One of the deckhands relieves the lookout at the front of the boat, who's watching a blind spot ahead of the barges.

Luetke tells the lookout to work on some other deckhand tasks.

Wilkey, along with his uncle, Richard Wilkey, 52, of Soddy-Daisy, and Tim Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn., are pulling up catfish from their trot line.

David Wilkey looks up and sees the barge bearing down, 100 yards away.

He tries starting the boat. It won't start.

He bangs on the engine. It won't start.

He pulls out a paddle and slaps it into the water. They're not moving fast enough.

Richard Wilkey screams at the barge, hoping someone will hear.

"But there's nobody at the barge who can hear them," Pope told the jury. "There's no lookout."

The barges roll over the boat, crushing fiberglass and capsizing the small vessel. The men are pulled under.

David Wilkey surfaces, shocked, exhausted, gasping.

He makes it back to the capsized boat and scans for his uncle and their friend. Nothing.

The towboat continues down river for a few miles before a call comes over that there had been an accident. Later a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer checks with Luetke.

"It couldn't have been us," Luetke tells him. "I've got a man in front of my tow."

But Luetke's attorney Sam Hudson had a few other items to share.

The first two witnesses called Tuesday afternoon, Andrew Thompson and Carolyn Rice, testified they came on the aftermath of the crash separately to help the boaters. Rice called 911 while her husband helped David Wilkey. Thompson jumped in the water and hauled out Spidle's lifeless body.

Richard Wilkey's body was found nearly three days later.

Thompson and Rice had lived on or boated the river for much of their lives, as had Wilkey. They both testified that the fishermen should have seen the barge coming.

Hudson noted that the crash happened in a seven- to eight-mile straight line of the river with clear visibility on a barge moving at no more than 5 mph.

"Those recreational boaters should have seen that barge, shouldn't they?" asked Hudson.

"I would have thought so," Thompson replied.

"I believe you said it was like someone standing in a field getting hit by a walking horse and then complaining about it," said Hudson.

"Yes."

Luetke was indicted more than seven months after the crash. At nearly the same time, toxicology reports were released showing that Richard Wilkey had a .269 blood alcohol level and Spidle registered a .20. The legal limit is .08.

Toxicology reports also revealed that David Wilkey had a "significant" level of THC, the intoxicating chemical component of marijuana, in his system at the time of the crash.

After that information was released in February 2011 Wilkey told the Times Free Press he "might have smoked a joint the night before but nothing that day."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement
400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.