Chattanooga tugboat operator indicted in deaths of fishermen whose boat was hit by a barge

Chattanooga tugboat operator indicted in deaths of fishermen whose boat was hit by a barge

February 12th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil and Beth Burger in News

A grand jury indicted a tugboat operator on two counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the deaths of two fishermen whose boat was hit by a barge last summer, according to court records.

Warren Luetke, 39, was negligent as the tugboat operator for the Bearcat, owned by Chattanooga-based Serodino Inc., when the 647-foot tugboat-barge combination collided with a fishing boat occupied by three men, according to the indictment filed Wednesday and previous Times Free Press archives.

Tim Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn., and Richard Wilkey, 52, of Soddy-Daisy, were killed in the June 19 accident on the Tennessee River in Chickamauga Lake after they were fishing on a 1977 16-foot Glastron.

Now more than six months later, after investigators with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency consulted with the Hamilton County district attorney's office, criminal charges were filed.

"I'm overjoyed by it," said David "Christopher" Wilkey, 37, the only survivor on the fishing boat, who lost his friend and brother this summer. "One hundred times a day, that goes through my head. ... It ain't been an easy thing to deal with."

Luetke also faces charges of reckless operation of a boat and rendering of assistance after he did not stop until authorities flagged him down.

"They ran us down, and they got seven or eight miles before anybody stopped them," Wilkey recalled at his home Friday evening.

Luetke was indicted Wednesday and arrested Friday afternoon. He posted a $5,000 bond.

Luetke declined to comment when reached by phone Friday afternoon.

The U.S. Coast Guard also is conducting an investigation, which is still pending.

Serodino Inc. officials declined to comment when reached by phone Friday. According to authorities, Luetke still has an operating license.

In December, attorneys for Serodino filed a limitation of liability in federal court attempting to limit their liability in the collision. The 1991 Bearcat value was assessed at about $1.1 million, according to court records. The freight on board was assessed at $11,615.

The limitation was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee after Chattanooga-based attorney Jerry Summers, who is representing the estate of Richard Wilkey, filed a claim in June.

Summers declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

David Wilkey said he believes the company shares responsibility for the crash.

"The company's definitely liable for their employees," he said.

The same tugboat was involved in a similar fatal collision with a fishing boat on Watts Bar Lake in Loudon County on June 26, 2009, where 53-year-old Jones Bower Bare was killed.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406.