Captain Still Facing Criminal Charge

Despite attempts by the lawyer representing a St. John sailboat operator to have federal authorities drop a criminal prosecution related to an incident at sea, the case of United States of America vs. Richard Smith still moves towards a trial date.

But the failure of government lawyers to answer an outstanding motion appears to signal a delay, going forward.

Capt. Richard Smith is owner and captain of Cimmaron. (Facebook photo)
Capt. Richard Smith is owner and captain of Cimmaron. (Facebook photo)

Capt. Richard Smith is the subject of a grand jury indictment alleging he neglected to follow protocols when an emergency arose aboard his vessel, S/V Cimarron, in October 2015. Last week, U.S. Magistrate Ruth Miller rejected a motion to have the case dismissed, based on a claim by defense attorney Michael Sheesley that a Coast Guard official engaged in misconduct.

Smith is accused of seaman’s manslaughter, resulting from an incident in which a crew member, David Pontius, jumped overboard during a voyage from North Carolina to St. John on or around Oct. 25, 2015. Smith and two other crew members, when interviewed by Coast Guard investigators, said Pontius began acting erratically after suffering from sea sickness and dehydration.

Witnesses also told investigators the crewman attacked Smith moments before jumping into the sea, 200 miles offshore in the Atlantic. He was never seen again, court documents said.

The captain of the S/V Cimarron is accused of failing to undertake a search for Pontius and failure to use his marine radio to notify the Coast Guard in a timely manner, among other alleged derelictions of duty.

After interviewing Smith and searching Pontius’ personal effects, Coast Guard Lt. Jacob Hopper wrote a report on Nov. 4, 2015, listing possible reasons why the incident unfolded as it did. Sheesley said the report exonerated his client, but in later filings he accused Hopper of withholding the report.

Instead, he said, the lieutenant tried to talk Smith into pleading guilty to a federal charge of seaman’s manslaughter. He chose not to do so and later invoked the right to remain silent before the grand jury in March 2017.