Drugs linked to boaters

Drugs linked to boaters

February 24th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press The towboat Bearcat pushes a group of barges to the lock at the Chickamauga Dam on Wednesday.

Toxicology reports show that all three men aboard a fishing boat struck by a barge on the Tennessee River were under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or both.

The lone survivor of the June collision has said he didn't see or hear a 647-foot tugboat-barge combination until it was a football field away, which didn't give them enough time to get out of the way.

Soddy-Daisy native Richard Wilkey, 52, and Elizabethton, Tenn., resident Tim Spidle, 45, died June 19 after the tugboat Bearcat, owned by Chattanooga-based Serodino Inc., hit the fishing boat.

Richard Wilkey's nephew, David "Chris" Wilkey, was operating the fishing boat and survived.

Chris Wilkey, 37, had a "fairly average" amount of THC -- marijuana's key ingredient -- in his system, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm.

"I might have smoked a joint the night before, but I hadn't done nothing that day," Wilkey said Wednesday. "I was not impaired one bit."

A Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency report characterizes Chris Wilkey as under the influence of drugs at the time of the crash, but authorities allowed him to drive home after he was treated for minor injuries.

Wilkey said he drank only Pepsi that day.

TWRA's main investigator on the case, Phillip Earhart, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"We can't tell exactly when someone was impaired based on the level from a blood sample, but the presence of the chemical does indicate marijuana use," said TBI's Helm, adding that she was speaking about positive THC results in general.

Richard Wilkey had no THC in his system, but his blood-alcohol content was 0.269 -- more than three times the 0.08 legal limit.

Spidle had a slightly higher THC level than Chris Wilkey and a 0.20 blood-alcohol level, the reports show.

"I really can't say how many beers they had," Wilkey said. "We'd just gotten on the water."

The toxicology reports, based on documents obtained from the TWRA and TBI, surfaced two weeks after a Hamilton County grand jury indicted tugboat operator Warren Luetke on two counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the deaths.

Luetke, who didn't stop the rig until authorities flagged him down, also faces charges of reckless operation of a boat and failure to render assistance.

"They hit us and kept on going," Chris Wilkey said. "There was no hesitation as they moved down the river."

The report states Luetke was not under the influence of alcohol when the collision occurred.

Luetke declined to speak on the record Wednesday. According to authorities, he still has a license to operate commercial liners.

Last December, Serodino Inc. filed federal court papers blaming the fishermen for causing their own deaths. The filing is designed to limit civil damages in the event of a lawsuit.

Serodino also blamed crash victims in 2009 when the same Bearcat collided with a fishing boat in Loudon, Tenn., killing Jones Bower Bare, 53, of Trap Hill, N.C.