A licensed boat captain from Maine, operating a seasonal sailboat charter on St. John, is on trial in District Court on St. Thomas, charged with seaman’s manslaughter. But the attorney representing Capt. Richard Smith says his client was the victim, not the perpetrator, in a 2015 incident resulting in a death.
Smith is accused of neglecting his duties as the master of the S/V Cimarron when crewman David Pontius went overboard after a violent altercation on Oct. 25, 2015.
According to a grand jury indictment delivered July 12, 2018, Smith is accused of a series of negligent actions resulting in the crewman’s death. As prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office began presenting its case on Monday and Tuesday, they brought several witnesses whose testimony addressed aspects of that alleged negligence.
Those government witnesses were challenged by the defense team of attorneys Michael Sheesley and David Cattie. Smith’s lawyers argued that Pontius was unfit for duty at sea and displayed bizarre and threatening behavior brought on by dehydration and suspected drug abuse.
Witnesses included crew members sailing on a vessel-delivery run from Maine to St. John, with a stop in Beaufort, N.C.; investigators from the U.S. Coast Guard; and a relative of Pontius who spoke to Smith a few days after the disappearance. Prosecutors also bought in a marine weather forecast provider and a number of expert witnesses.
Crew member Jacob Pepper was the lead-off witness. He was one of two persons who sailed with Smith for the entire trip. Pepper’s testimony lasted from Monday afternoon through mid-morning Tuesday.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sigrid Tejo-Sprotte and Daniel Hurston, Pepper spoke about the stop in Beaufort on Nov. 21, 2015, when Pontius boarded the vessel, taking the place of Candice Martin. Martin left the ship to return to her home in South Carolina, the witness said.
Almost immediately after setting sail for St. John, Pepper said, Pontius became seasick. Seasickness is common, he said, and Pontius declined an offer by the captain to return to shore.
But as the voyage continued, Pepper said Pontius’ began making strange comments to him and to the other crew member, Heather Morningstar.
Comments recalled from the witness stand under questioning included where the vessel was going and why Pontius’ glasses didn’t look familiar.
Later, the comments suggested hallucinations were setting in. Pepper said Pontius accused his shipmates of trying to kidnap him in order to gain a ransom.
Smith confronted Pontius and asked if he was on drugs. The captain searched the crewman’s quarters and said he found hundreds of pills.
When Smith asked Pontius what kind of pills they were, Pepper testified the crewman said they were for high blood pressure.
A while later, Pontius began saying he saw a portal off to the side of the boat and the vessel had to change course. Then, the witness said, Pontius picked up the ship’s spotlight and pointed it in the direction where he said the portal appeared.
The captain’s response was to tell Pontius, “Touch my equipment again, I’ll slit your throat,” Pepper told the court.
From there, the situation grew increasingly tense. Pontius sat on deck, staring at the ship’s wheel and directional equipment. Now and then, he’d get up and start shaking the equipment, and then sit down again, staring, Pepper said.
When the crewman failed to convince Smith to change course, a violent confrontation ensued.
In testimony, the witness said Pontius grabbed the captain by the throat; the two men struggled and Smith called to Pepper for help. But the witness said he was never given to violence and had never been in a fight. He placed his hand on Pontius’ shoulder, and was shoved away.
With the shove, came a threat: ‘You’ll get it next.’
Smith managed to fend off the attack, after which, Pepper said, Pontius stepped out onto the lines running along the vessel’s rail and stepped over the side.
“He stood on the life lines and he stepped overboard,” the witness said.
Pepper said that was the last he saw of David Pontius. The time was about 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25. An almost full moon shone on the waves that rose about six to eight feet.
The witness said he grabbed the spotlight and shone its beam across the water to see if he could spot Pontius. But, he said, he did not see him.
Sheesley, on cross examination, asked what happened next.
“You didn’t beg Rick to turn around, did you?”
“And is it correct, Capt. Smith took the coordinates where David jumped?”
“You were shining the spotlight all through the ocean?” Sheesley said.
“Yes,” Pepper said.
“Looking for David Pontius?”
“You didn’t turn the vessel around?”
“And you observed Capt. Smith call Mayday to the Coast Guard on the VHS channel?”
“And the VHS channel has a range of about 20 miles? At this time, the vessel is still going forward at about seven miles, eight miles an hour?”
Later on Tuesday, another witness pointed to a map they created based on data gathered from the voyage of the Cimarron. Coast Guard search and rescue specialist John Ware said at the time the vessel was about 340 miles southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.