Tugboat operator pleads not guilty

Tugboat operator pleads not guilty

March 5th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in News

A week after toxicology reports showed two fishermen in a fatal boat collision had used alcohol, marijuana or both, the attorney for the tugboat operator accused of killing them said his client "was in no way responsible for the death of those individuals."

"We look forward to proving his innocence," attorney Sam Hudson said Friday after an arraignment hearing for Warren Luetke before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman.

Luetke, 39, was not present, and Hudson entered pleas on his behalf.

"He told me I didn't have to be there for that so I didn't have to miss work," Luetke said in a telephone interview later Friday.

Luetke works for Chattanooga's Serodino Inc., the owner of a tugboat known as the Bearcat, which was pushing nine barges at the time of the collision last year.

Investigators said Luetke was at the wheel when the rig collided with a fishing boat in the Tennessee River's navigation channel on June 19.

Soddy-Daisy native Richard Wilkey, 52, and Elizabethton, Tenn., resident Tim Spidle, 45, were killed. The fishing boat's operator, Richard Wilkey's nephew David "Chris" Wilkey, survived.

Reports show Luetke ran over the boat without seeing it or sounding a warning signal. He didn't stop until Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials flagged him down.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported last week that toxicology tests showed Spidle and both Wilkeys were "under the influence" as they fished in the navigation channel.

Chris Wilkey had a "fairly average" amount of THC, marijuana's key ingredient, in his system, the report said. He told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he "might have smoked a joint the night before, but ... hadn't done nothing that day."

He said he drank only Pepsi that day, and TWRA investigators allowed him to drive home after the accident.

Richard Wilkey's blood alcohol content was 0.269 - more than three times the legal limit - and Spidle's blood showed marijuana and a 0.20 blood-alcohol level, reports show.

"That's a major issue," Hudson said after the arraignment. "Hopefully, there will be others during discovery."

Last December, Serodino filed federal court documents 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 hit a fishing boat on Watts Bar Lake, killing Jones Bower Bare, 53, of Traphill, N.C.

"We're not worried about what's going on in the case at this moment," said Andy Berke, who is representing the Spidle family and Chris Wilkey. "We think this case will show clearly that Serodino is responsible for this accident."