Chattanooga: Tugboat operator pleads not guilty in deadly fishing boat crash

photo 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.

A tugboat operator indicted on two counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the deaths of two fishermen pleaded not guilty to the charges this morning.

Warren Luetke, 39, did not show up for his arraignment hearing before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman. Instead, his Sequatchie County-based attorney, Sam Hudson, entered the pleas on his behalf.

Last June, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency investigators identified Luetke as the operator of the Bearcat, a 647-foot tugboat-barge combination that crashed into a fishing boat occupied by three men.

Reports show Luetke ran over the boat without seeing it and didn't stop the rig until TWRA investigators flagged him down.

Tim Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn., and Soddy-Daisy native Richard Wilkey, 52, died after the June 19 accident on the Tennessee River in Chickamauga Lake as they fished on a 1977 16-foot Glastron. David "Chris" Wilkey, 37, survived the crash.

The fishing boat was found to be within the navigation channel, and men on the small craft were under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or both, toxicology reports show.

Read more in tomorrow's Chattanooga Times Free Press.