Trial Underway For Charles Luetke, Charged For Deaths Of 2 Men In 2010 In Barge Accident

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - by Hollie Webb
Attorney Samuel Hudson
Attorney Samuel Hudson
- photo by Hollie Webb

Defense attorney Samuel Hudson said Tuesday afternoon, "Everything Captain Luetke did that day was reasonable based on professional experience." Charles Luetke, now 42, is charged with criminally negligent homicide after the drowning deaths of two men whose fishing boat was struck by a tugboat piloted by Luetke in 2010.

However, prosecutor Lance Pope said, "Think about all the opportunities that the defendant had to avoid that collision, all the training he's had, the manpower he had at his disposal to keep a lookout.

To make sure that they were being safe." 

Attorney Hudson said, "The state will try to convince you that Mr. Luetke had every single chance in the world to avoid this accident. So did the recreational boat."

He told the jury that on the day of the accident, the sky had been perfectly clear and visibility had been around seven to eight miles. He also pointed out the barge, named the Bearcat, had only been going five miles per hour and was 21 feet tall.

He said, "So for a distance of seven to eight miles, that would have been visible coming down the river." 

In his opening statement, prosecutor Pope said co-pilot Will Stevens had alerted Luetke that something was wrong, saying there was a strong odor of gasoline and a foreign gas can lodged in the front of the barge.

However, according to the prosecution, Luetke decided to continue on. Attorney Pope said Luetke "assures Will Stevens that there is nothing wrong and they keep on moving down the river. At some point in time, Luetke is notified that a barge has hit a boat." Still, Luetke said it could not have been them. 

While David Wilkey was able to escape from the accident, both Richard Wilkey and Tim Spidle drowned.

Attorney Hudson noted that both were found to have a BAC of approximately .2, over twice the legal limit to drive a vehicle. Mr. Spidle had also smoked marijuana. 

The first witness on Tuesday was Andrew Thompson, a Bradley County resident who was on the river and one of the people who responded to the capsized fishing boat. He did not see the accident and at first thought the boat was a flipped jet ski.

He said his father tried to perform CPR on Mr. Spidle but he never got a pulse. 

Attorney Hudson asked, "Based on what you saw...those boaters should have saw that barge shouldn't they?" Mr. Thompson said, "I would think so."

The next two witnesses were Carolyn and Jeff Rice, a couple who had also been out on the river that day, stopping to help when they saw the fishing boat. 

Mrs. Rice said, "As we got closer we could see that it was the underside of a boat and there was a man hanging on it. My husband jumped in the water and I called 911."

She and her husband both spoke to David Wilkey after his rescue and said he did not smell of alcohol or marijuana.

Mr. Rice said, "He just seemed like he was in shock. I mean, good grief, I can't imagine going through that. I never thought that he was under the influence of anything. I realized that he had just been through a traumatic experience and was dealing with that." 

Sean Fairbanks, another boater to respond, was the fourth witness. He said, "I wanted to roll the boat over to make sure no one was under the boat...The man we were talking to kept wanting to know where his buddies were."

The last witness was W.G. "Buck" Campbell, an employee of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office and a Certified Accident reconstructionist. 

From his calculations based on measurements of the boat and the river, for any barge like the Bearcat, he said there would be an approximately mile-long blind spot directly in the front.

However, attorney Hudson said the calculations did not take into account the barge rising and falling in the water. He said a boat would not have a constant height because of this.

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