published Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Mechanic testifies fishing boat not safe

A mechanic who inspected the fishing boat in which two men were killed when it collided with a nine-barge towboat testified Friday that the craft "never should have been out on the water."

The boat had a rotten transom, a broken battery and solenoid and corroded wires, Robert Christoffel testified.

"I'm surprised the engine was even running," he said.

The 30-year boat mechanic inspected David "Chris" Wilkey's boat after the June 19, 2010 crash that killed Wilkey's uncle, Richard Wilkey, 52, and friend Tim Spidle, 45.

Had the engine started, the 16-foot-long boat may have gotten out of the way before the 105-foot-wide, 675-foot-long, 21-foot tall, nine barge and towboat configuration came bearing down on the three men.

But neither towboat captain Warren Charles Luetke, 42, nor David Wilkey, 41, who drove the fishing boat, said they saw each other.

They did not see each other despite it being a clear, sunny day at about 5:30 p.m. with an estimated seven-to-eight mile straight-line visibility.

Luetke is on trial for two counts of criminally negligent homicide in Spidle and Richard Wilkey's deaths. He also faces charges of reckless operation of a boat and failure to render assistance.

The captain testified on his own behalf Friday, saying he didn't see the boat. Luetke did say he had a clear line of sight for more than two miles when he took over.

The towboat traveled one mile in 12 minutes.

"For over 30 minutes he's moving down the water and he says he doesn't see a boat in the navigable channel," prosecutor Lance Pope asked expert witness David Smith, towboat master pilot.

Smith said it is possible the fishing boat could have been in a blind spot.

Luetke testified that he has thought about the incident for the past four years.

"The only possible solution is they had to be in an area I couldn't see before I took over," Luetke testified.

There was not a lookout posted when he took over as captain less than half an hour before the crash. Luetke did not post one. But under maritime rules a lookout is not required. An expert witness testified Friday that Luetke made a "sound, professional" decision not to post a lookout.

But prosecutors Lance Pope and Cameron Williams pointed out that the decision not to have a lookout did not mean that Luetke himself was being an effective lookout.

And that was the decision, prosecutors said, that led to the deaths.

However, Hudson has noted through witnesses and evidence presented that both Richard Wilkey and Spidle had more than twice the legal limit of blood alcohol to drive in their systems when killed. Spidle and David Wilkey both had "significant" levels of THC, the intoxicating ingredient of marijuana, in their blood.

David Wilkey testified that he'd smoked a marijuana joint the day before the crash but had not smoked the day of the collision.

Hudson also noted that it is part of David Wilkey's responsibility to have a working boat and called John Jones, a friend of Spidle's who'd seen the trio before the crash. Jones testified that David Wilkey had to jump-start his boat a week before.

David Wilkey had denied needing to jump-start his boat's engine to get it started during the time before the crash.

The trial will resume Monday at 8:30 with closing arguments.

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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