Verdict in fatal boat crash divides Harrison residents

Posted Sept. 26, 2008, at 11:02 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:18 a.m.

By Glenn Adams

HARRISON, Maine — The trial of a man who was at the helm of a high-powered boat that slashed across a smaller motorboat, killing two people, has left residents of this small lakeside town quietly divided and anxiously waiting for the nightmarish tale to play out.

The tragic events of Aug. 11, 2007, were replayed in court during the past two weeks before a jury decided that Robert LaPointe of Medway, Mass., was guilty of two counts of aggravated operating under the influence. Jurors, however, were unable to agree on a verdict on two manslaughter counts, leaving the possibility LaPointe could be tried again.

“I don’t believe [the jury] finished their work,” Bob Dann, a retiree and resident of this town of about 2,600, said as he trimmed the bushes by his lakeside cottage. “It’s my belief that the man should have been found guilty of more than drinking.”

Misty Sulloway of Bridgton, which also abuts Long Lake, said the issue boils down to respect for others.

“Traveling at that speed while you’re drinking is very irresponsible,” she said.

Some see another side to the accident that took the lives of Terry Raye Trott, 55, of nearby Naples and 44-year-old Suzanne Groetzinger of Berwick, whose 14-foot vessel was struck by LaPointe’s boat No Patience.

“I feel bad for both sides,” said Marsha Swecker, who works at a Bridgton chiropractic office. She said some clients who come in think LaPointe had no chance in court in his highly publicized case.

“We’ve all done the same thing, drinking while out in our boat,” said Wayne DiStefano, an auto repairman in Bridgton. “He should have said, ‘OK, I’m drinking. I should be a little more careful.”’

Many residents are reluctant to even speak about the case, but they acknowledge that just about everybody’s talking about it. Troubling as the case is, a national group that keeps track of statistics says boaters are safer than ever.

“The town seems to be divided on the whole thing,” said Harrison Town Manager Bradley Plante, adding that some want to see a stiff sentence for LaPointe while others point to testimony that the 14-foot boat that was struck didn’t have its navigational lights on.

That shouldn’t matter, said a Bridgton mechanic who keeps a boat on Long Lake and says he knows the waterway “like the back of my hand.”

“When you’re driving at night, you have to go wake speed at best,” said the mechanic, who didn’t want his name used.

LaPointe had testified during his trial in Cumberland County Superior Court that he was operating at 30 mph and had been pressured by an investigator into saying he was traveling at “maybe 40, maybe 45” in his boat equipped with twin 435-horsepower engines that deliver a top speed of 80 mph.

More powerful than Maine’s best-known ocean speedboat, former President George H.W. Bush’s 825-horsepower Fidelity III, LaPointe’s was going fast enough the night of the accident to bring it to rest more than 100 feet ashore.

It wasn’t the first incident of that kind on Long Lake, said Harbor Master Gary Pendexter, who recalled an accident a year before the one involving LaPointe in which a kayak was struck at night by a motorboat and cut in half. The kayaker jumped into the water before the collision and the driver of the power boat was cited for operating at an imprudent speed, the state Warden Service said.

Pendexter said more powerful boats are becoming a reality on Long Lake, as lakefront property values rise and new, affluent residents bring their expensive vessels.

“There’s bigger and faster boats than have been here,” he said.

“We see a lot of cigarette boats and yacht-type boats we haven’t had in the past,” said Pendexter, who advocates a speed limit on the lake. Problem is, he says, is that state game wardens are spread too thin to enforce speed limits.

Neighboring New Hampshire has enacted just such a law applying to its largest lake, Winnipesaukee, but not in time to prevent a 37-foot boat from slamming into an island on a dark night last June, killing one of the three women aboard. The limits that take effect Jan. 1 for a two-year trial set a daytime limit of 45 mph and night limit of 25 mph.

The idea of more regulations rankles some of the Maine lake’s users, who say no law can force boaters to exercise common sense. The National Safe Boating Council also says it’s hard to prevent accidents that result from bad judgment.

But the nation’s swelling legion of recreational boaters seem to be getting the message that they need to think when they’re on the water, said Virgil Chambers, executive director of the Virginia-based National Safe Boating Council.

“Generally speaking, boating is safer than it’s ever been before,” said Chambers, who credits increased education, increased awareness of the effects of alcohol and improved stability of the boats themselves.

While year-to-year recreational boating fatality figures fluctuate, if looked at over five-year increments, they show a decline, said Chambers. He noted that relatively few of the 700 boating deaths per year are due to collisions, while 85 percent are drownings that most often stem from failure to use life jackets.

Coast Guard figures also show a decline in the rate of recreational boating deaths. In 1996, there were 709 deaths, or six deaths per 100,000 registered vessels. In 2007, there were 685 deaths but 5.3 deaths per 100,000 vessels.

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