published Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Jury acquits towboat captain involved in 2010 Tennessee River crash

  • photo
    Defendant Charles Warren Luetke, left, and his attorney Sam Hudson walk through the City-County Courts Building in Chattanooga.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Four years later, the captain of a towboat that collided with a small fishing boat on the Tennessee River and killed two fishermen still questions why the crash happened.

Charles Warren Luetke, 42, spent months after the June 19, 2010, wreck poring over his memory, second-guessing himself and reliving the day.

On Monday, a group of 12 strangers helped ease his burden.

"I'm very sorry that two men lost their lives, but I'm not the one responsible for it and a jury proved that," Luetke said. "I still, to this point, don't know how that boat got where it got without me seeing it get there."

After a week-long trial that began May 13 and ended Monday with closing arguments, the Hamilton County jury returned within 40 minutes with a complete acquittal on all charges -- two counts of criminally negligent homicide, one count of reckless operation of a boat and one count of failure to render assistance.

The 105-foot-wide, 21-foot-tall, 675-foot-long towboat with nine barge combination that Luetke piloted capsized the 16-foot-long recreational fishing boat, killing Richard Wilkey, 52, of Soddy-Daisy, and Tim Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, N.C., and tossing fishing boat driver David "Chris" Wilkey, 41, overboard.

A $15 million federal civil lawsuit involving David Wilkey, relatives of the deceased boaters and towboat owner Serodino Inc. was settled for an undisclosed amount in April.

David Wilkey testified during the trial that he didn't see the towboat and barges until they were 100 yards from his boat, despite a straight-line view of up to eight miles on the river on a clear, sunny day at about 5 p.m.

Luetke's attorney Sam Hudson said after the verdict that for the jury to find his client guilty of criminal negligence they would have had to believe the captain had "completely disregarded the risk of danger."

"[Prosecutors] just didn't have any proof of gross negligence," Hudson said.

Prosecutors Lance Pope and Cameron Williams showed that Luetke didn't have a lookout posted at the front of the boat to spot vessels in the towboat's blindspot. But that wasn't the criminal portion of their theory. It was that Luetke himself was not paying enough attention to see the boat in his path and didn't know he'd struck it until he was called about the crash and he had traveled two miles past the site.

Williams said the actions of the victims before the crash posed an obstacle for him and Pope.

Post-crash testing showed that Richard Wilkey and Spidle both had blood-alcohol levels more than twice the .08 legal limit for driving. Testing also showed that Spidle and David Wilkey had significant levels of THC, the active intoxicating component of marijuana, in their systems at the time of the crash.

A boat mechanic's testimony that the fishing boat never should have been taken out on the river because of the condition of the motor and transom added to prosecutors' difficulties, Williams said.

"We knew that going into it and felt like there was enough proof," he said. "Sometimes the evidence doesn't come out the way you hoped."

Melvin Wilkey, Richard Wilkey's brother and David Wilkey's uncle, attended the entire trial.

"It came out like I thought it would -- no justice," Melvin Wilkey said after the verdict. He said that the captain was trained and certified, so he should have been held to a higher standard since he was piloting such a large craft.

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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