published Friday, May 16th, 2014

Never saw the barges, survivor testifies at homicide trial of towboat captain in Chattanooga

Defendant Charles Warren Luetke, left, and his attorney Sam Hudson walk through the City-County Courts Building halls Tuesday in Chattanooga. 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. 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.

David "Chris" Wilkey testified repeatedly that he never saw a nine-barge mass on the Tennessee River until it was 100 yards from his fishing boat.

But he wasn't looking for it, either.

His uncle, Richard Wilkey, 52, and friend Tim Spidle, 45, were supposed to look out over the river while David Wilkey, 42, pulled fish and rebaited a trotline on June 19, 2010.

But the men were either not looking, didn't see or didn't say anything if they saw the 105-foot-wide, 647-foot-long, 21-foot-tall towboat and nine barge combination until it was atop them. The barges slammed into and capsized their 16-foot fishing boat and rolled all three men underneath.

Defense attorney Sam Hudson thinks he knows why neither Spidle nor Richard Wilkey spotted the boat.

After the crash killed the two men and nearly drowned David Wilkey, blood tests showed that both men had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in their bodies when they died. Spidle and David Wilkey also tested positive for THC, the active, intoxicating component in marijuana.

The sole survivor of the collision, David Wilkey testified Thursday in the third day of a homicide trial of towboat captain Charles Warren Luetke, 42.

Luetke did not have a lookout posted. For that choice as captain he faces two counts of criminally negligent homicide, reckless operation of a boat and failure to render assistance. If convicted he could be sentenced to one to two years in prison.

Throughout defense attorney Sam Hudson's cross-examination, Wilkey's tone grew more and more frustrated. He told Hudson he was in "shock" after the crash, that he has "spent the past four years" trying to forget about that day and that he was not "going to agree" with Hudson on anything.

Wilkey grew angry during his testimony and at one point refused to continue testifying until Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman ordered him out of the courtroom with officers to calm down.

The question that set Wilkey off was whether he thought it was negligent for him not to have a lookout for his 16-foot fishing boat.

Wilkey said he thought it was negligent that Luetke didn't have a lookout on the barge.

When Wilkey returned to the stand after a 10-minute break, Hudson returned to the same questions.

Wilkey repeatedly answered "I don't know" to nearly all of Hudson's questions.

Hudson pushed at points he had made in his opening argument Tuesday -- that a problematic starter on the fishing boat engine coupled with the intoxicated state of Spidle and Richard Wilkey contributed to the crash.

"Mr. Wilkey, if you had just looked up river at any time you were on that trot-line you could have seen the barges coming from at least three to four miles away, couldn't you?" Hudson asked.

"I don't know," Wilkey said.

Earlier Thursday a U.S. Coast Guard officer testified that while it is advisable for towboat operators to post a lookout, it is not required; it is the captain's discretion.

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 ...

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