Skipper acquitted in manslaughter trial

Published on January 9th, 2019

St. Thomas, Virgin Islands (January 9, 2018) – Camden (ME) charter boat captain Rick Smith is free after a federal judge acquitted him today of seaman’s manslaughter in connection with the death of a crew member in 2015.

Judge Curtis Gomez in the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands granted a motion for judgment of acquittal that had been filed by Smith’s attorney the day before.

Smith’s attorney, Michael Sheesley, confirmed the decision, which ended his client’s trial before it reached a jury. “This was an unusual resolution but a great result for Rick,” Sheesley said by phone.

Smith, 66, had been charged with negligence contributing to the death of David Pontious, a crew member aboard Smith’s sailboat, Cimarron (above), in October 2015.

Pontious, 54, of Beaufort, North Carolina, was one of three crew members who were helping Smith sail the 43-foot yawl from Maine to the Virgin Islands, something the captain had done every year for a decade.

According to investigative reports and court documents, Pontious joined the voyage in North Carolina after another crew member departed. Almost immediately, Pontious became seasick and his behavior grew increasingly erratic, culminating in a standoff with Smith while the Cimarron was more than 300 miles from land.

Shortly after he tried to choke Smith and take control of the helm, Pontious jumped over the side of the boat and into the ocean below. He never resurfaced.

Smith, a longtime licensed charter captain, didn’t report the incident until the next day, although he did not have advanced radio capabilities. A Coast Guard investigation also revealed that he made no attempts to search for Pontious, to throw him a life ring or to turn the boat around.

The captain was questioned about Pontious’ death after the Cimarron arrived in the Virgin Islands, but he wasn’t charged until two and a half years later, in a secret indictment.

Smith was taken into custody in November 2018 upon his arrival in port in St. Thomas. He has been on house arrest since he posted bond.

Smith’s trial began on Monday (Jan. 7) with opening statements from federal prosecutors and his attorney, followed by government witnesses, including the other crew members, Jacob Pepper and Heather Morningstar. The prosecution continued its case on Tuesday while Smith’s attorneys simultaneously tried to get the judge to settle the case.

In the defense motion for judgment of acquittal, attorneys argued that the little-used statute known as seaman’s manslaughter only applies to commercial vessels. Sheesley explained that because there were no paying customers and no commercial cargo when the Cimarron was sailing south in October 2015, it was considered a recreational or pleasure voyage.

It cited a case from 1974 where a captain was acquitted in the deaths of two crew members who died during a voyage from Connecticut to Florida that was deemed non-commercial and therefore not subject to the seaman’s manslaughter statute.

The U.S. Attorney’s office opposed the motion for acquittal, but the judge ruled in Smith’s favor, ending the case before it went to a jury.

Gretchen Shappert, U.S. Attorney for the Virgin Islands, declined in an email today to comment on the decision. Sheesley said he expected Judge Gomez to issue a written decision that would be filed with the court and serve as potential case law.

Smith, who faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted, was released from custody after court. Sheesley said he expected his client to return as soon as possible to his sailboat.

Smith did not return a call for comment today, but he posted one word on his Facebook page shortly after the decision — “FREEDOM,” with eight exclamation points. His daughter, Ashley Rose, who lives in Massachusetts, said in a text message that the family was excited by the decision and relieved the ordeal is over.

Pontious’ parents, who attended the trial, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Smith in October, prior to his arrest. That case was later withdrawn before the trial began.


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