Warren Luetke Says He Never Saw Fishing Boat Before Collision That Killed 2 Men

Friday, May 16, 2014 - by Hollie Webb

As the criminally negligent homicide trial of Captain Warren Luetke continued into Friday afternoon, Luetke himself testified as a witness, saying, "The only possible explanation is that they were in the blind spot before I took control."

Luetke said that he never once saw the boat or its three passengers who were struck by his towboat, causing the drowning deaths of two men. 

Right before Luetke testified, defense attorney Sam Hudson made a motion for an acquittal.


Attorney Hudson said, "Even viewing the state's evidence at its strongest, they have only proven there was a blind spot...That is all they established is that there was a calculated blind spot at one point, and they thought that was improper." 

However, prosecutor Lance Pope said "Mr. Luetke's failure to observe those people in the navigable channel" was evidence of negligence. Judge Barry Steelman ruled to continue the trial and let the jury decide.

Prior to Luetke's testimony, his second-in-command at the time time of the incident was also called in as a witness.

Will Stevens, now the current captain of the Bearcat, said on that day, he saw people standing in a boat, pointing at men swimming in the water. 

He said, "I just got a bad feeling in my gut that something wasn't right." Mr. Stevens had been involved in a similar accident the year before. Luetke said during his testimony this made him very "cautious."

He said he warned Luetke, but he did not see any sign that there had been a collision. Mr. Stevens told the jury he also had not felt or heard anything to indicate a collision. When inspecting the front of the barges, he said he found a gas can. However, it was noted that this is not uncommon for barges. 

Attorney Hudson said, "Pushing barges down the river collects debris. You've found parts of docks. That doesn't mean you've hit a dock. You've found propane tanks. That doesn't mean you ran over somebody grilling."

He also noted that Mr. Stevens had been in control of the boat before the defendant's shift began. Attorney Hudson pointed out he also had not posted a supplementary lookout on the head of the boat. 

Attorney Hudson said, "You felt you were justified in serving as your own lookout down this particular stretch of the river."

He asked, "He exercised his duties in a professional manner based on your experience as a towboat captain, do you agree?" Mr. Stevens said yes. 

Several other witnesses were also called by the defense, including a friend of the fishing boat survivor David Christopher "Chris" Wilkey.

John Jones was a former coworker of Timothy Spidle, one of the crew members who drowned. Through Mr. Spidle, he met Chris Wilkey. He said, "Tim would come over and Chris would come with him." 

He said that Chris Wilkey did not drink but that he smoked marijuana nearly everyday. He called Mr. Wilkey a "pot head." He said on the day of the collision, Mr. Spidle had been drinking but did not seem intoxicated. However, he said Richard Wilkey was "drunk and passed out."

Another witness, Robert Christoffel, said he had worked on boats for over 30 years. He examined the fishing boat and said, "In my opinion the boat should never have been out on the water." 

He said he observed "lack of maintenance, corroded wires," saying, "I'm surprised the engine was even still running...With a good battery, the engine still would not run."

Closing arguments for the trial will start early Monday morning, after which the jury will start to deliberate.

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