Captain arrested for death of crew

Published on December 10th, 2018

Rick Smith had never met David Pontious before he agreed to welcome the man aboard his sailboat, Cimarron, in October 2015. Smith, a Maine resident, was piloting the 43-foot vessel from Camden (above) to the warm waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands for winter.

Pontious didn’t join until North Carolina, when he replaced another crew member who had to depart. That’s when things took a bizarre turn.

Four days of increasingly erratic behavior by Pontious culminated in a violent standoff between him and Smith in the early morning hours. The boat was more than 300 miles from any land. Pontious ended up jumping over the port side into the blackness below. Lost at sea. Presumed dead at age 54.

However, three years later, Smith has been charged under a little-used federal statute often referred to as seaman’s manslaughter. His indictment alleges that he engaged in “misconduct, negligence and inattention to duties as captain of the vessel by which the life of a person, to wit: David Pontious, was destroyed.”

It’s not clear why prosecutors took so long to bring charges. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Virgin Islands, where the case resides, would not comment. In documents, though, the government has alleged that Smith failed in a number of areas to ensure Pontious’ safety and to properly report the incident in a timely manner.

Smith’s attorney, Michael Sheesley, believes that this is the first time that charges have ever been brought under this statute – 18 U.S. Code 1115 – in the Virgin Islands. He has called the case a “witch hunt.”

Several maritime attorneys in Maine agreed that charging a captain in connection with such an incident is highly unusual. Although boat captains assume responsibility for virtually everything that happens aboard their ship, that often matters more on commercial vessels or in cases where negligence is clear, such as the case of a lobster boat captain from the midcoast who pleaded guilty this year to two counts of seaman’s manslaughter after two crew members died when their boat sank. That captain was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time.

Smith’s loved ones can’t fathom why an experienced, respected sailboat captain should be held responsible for the actions of Pontious, who appeared to be troubled before he boarded the Cimarron and grew steadily worse.

Reached by phone last month, Smith was reluctant to speak until the legal case has been resolved but said he’s no criminal. “Nothing close to this has ever happened to me,” he said. – Full story

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