By Jerry Harkavy
PORTLAND, Maine — A Massachusetts boater accused of causing a fatal collision on a Maine lake was convicted of aggravated operating under the influence on Wednesday, but a jury dead-locked on charges of manslaughter and reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon.
Prosecutors said Robert LaPointe of Medway, Mass., was drunk and recklessly speeding across Long Lake at night when his 32-foot speed-boat collided with a smaller boat.
The defense contended LaPointe was not impaired and didn’t see the 14-foot boat in front of him because it was black and had its lights off on the lake in western Maine.
Killed in the collision on Aug. 11, 2007, were Terry Raye Trott, 55, of Harrison, and Suzanne Groetzinger, 44, of Berwick. LaPointe, 39, and his passenger survived being thrown from their boat, which sped across the lake and came to rest more than 100 feet in the woods.
J. Albert Johnson, one of LaPointe’s lawyers, held his client’s hand as the verdicts were announced in Cumberland County Superior Court after more than 16 hours of jury deliberations over three days. Justice Robert Crowley polled the jurors individually on whether they were deadlocked before dismissing them.
District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who was visibly angered at the outcome, said she was disappointed that the jury couldn’t come to a decision on the manslaughter counts but was pleased at the guilty verdict on the aggravated OUI charges.
“We will definitely be asking for prison time. We’ll be asking for incarceration time of greater than nine months,” she said. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 12.
Anderson said she had not decided whether to retry the case.
A tearful LaPointe stood silently beside his wife as Johnson expressed gratitude to the jury and passed on his client’s expressions of condolence to the victims’ families.
“It has never, ever, ever left his mind, nor will it for the rest of his life, that two people died that night,” Johnson said, noting that LaPointe’s emotional state of mind led him to relay the feelings of remorse on his client’s behalf.
The judge continued LaPointe’s bail at $50,000 in cash after rejecting Anderson’s motion that he be ordered held without bail while awaiting sentencing.
Outside the courthouse, Groetzinger’s friend Meg Harvey expressed disappointment that jurors did not return a verdict on the manslaughter counts but said the families were pleased that he was found guilty on two other felonies.
“We think that [for] the loss of two lives with someone who was driving at night on a boat too big for Maine’s lakes and streams, drunk, five years seems like a very limited sentence for us to live the rest of our lives without our loved ones,” she said.
Harvey said it was up to the prosecution to decide whether to retry the case, but if there was another trial, “we will be here again.”
Harvey also vowed to continue to seek legislation to ban high-performance boats like LaPointe’s from Maine’s inland waters.
Each of the two aggravated operating under the influence charges carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The two manslaughter counts that led to the hung jury were the most serious charges, with a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for each. Reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Anderson said LaPointe had been drinking all day before he sped across the lake in his boat, “No Patience,” at a speed of 45 mph or greater.
A blood sample taken three hours after the crash indicated his blood-alcohol content was 0.11 percent, greater than the limit of 0.08 percent for operating a boat in Maine.
The defense contended the blood test was flawed because LaPointe’s sample spent more than 30 hours in a game warden’s truck before being delivered to the laboratory. The defense also contended that LaPointe was a conscientious boater and that he was not impaired.
Taking the stand in his own defense, LaPointe testified he drank only three beers during the course of the day of the collision. Earlier, a nurse said he told her that he’d been drinking all day and then took an hour-long break before consuming another three to six beers.
Jurors also had to sort out conflicting testimony over whether the lights were working properly on Trott’s boat at the time of the collision.
Some witnesses testified that the boat had no lights. An expert witness testified that the “all-around light” that serves as a beacon at night was likely not operating at the time of the collision even though the boat’s light switch was discovered to be in the “on” position.
Prosecutors say it was LaPointe’s responsibility as a boater overtaking another vessel to avoid the collision even if the smaller boat lacked proper lighting.
LaPointe’s boat had twin 435-horsepower engines with the capability of propelling it to 80 mph, and its presence on the small lake raised eyebrows. Critics said the boat was too powerful for a lake that was only 11 miles long and up to a mile wide.
The defense pointed out that there are no speed limits on Maine lakes, nor are there restrictions on the size of boats operating on Long Lake.