A judge in the U.S. Virgin Islands has acquitted a charter captain facing a charge of seaman’s manslaughter stemming from a 2015 incident where a delirious crewman jumped overboard in the Atlantic Ocean.
U.S. District Judge Curtis Gomez ruled on Jan. 9 that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to support the charge against Capt. Rick Smith. The government had alleged negligence and misconduct in the death of 54-year-old David Pontious.
“The judgment actually turned on the fact that the statute Capt. Smith was charged under only applies to commercial vessels,” said Michael Sheesley, Smith’s attorney in the case. “Capt. Smith, at the time this incident occurred, was not engaged in any commercial activity.”
The acquittal ends the case against Smith, who splits his time between St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Camden, Maine. He runs charters in both locations from Cimarron, his 43-foot wooden yawl.
A U.S. Coast Guard investigation report released Nov. 5, 2015, paints a chilling picture of Pontious’ short time on the vessel. He boarded Cimarron on Oct. 21, 2015, in Beaufort, N.C. At that point, he met Smith and the rest of the crew for the first time.
Cimarron left the next morning for St. John with Smith, Pontious and two other crew. Pontious became seasick less than two hours into the voyage and his conditions steadily worsened over the next few days. He struggled to keep food and water down and likely did not receive sufficient doses of various medication.
Pontious struggled to remember where the vessel was headed, who else was on board and, at times, where he was, according to the report. He also reported seeing visions in the clouds. During the midnight to 0200 watch shift on Oct. 25, Pontious accused fellow crew of kidnapping him. Later, he grabbed Smith, punched him twice and began choking him. Pontious tossed another crewman who tried to intervene “like a rag doll.”
Moments later, Pontious climbed over the wire railing and jumped overboard. Smith rushed to the edge of the sailboat, where he saw a trail of bubbles as Pontious sank some 300 miles offshore. Smith then reportedly told the two remaining people on board, “There is nothing we can do,” and continued sailing through 8- to 10-foot seas.
Smith tried to hail other nearby vessels using VHF and single-band radio to no avail. The following day, Smith reported the incident and location to a weather router and asked him to alert the Coast Guard.
Federal prosecutors arrested Smith on Nov. 2, 2018, on a seaman’s manslaughter charge stemming from his failure to stop and render assistance after Pontious went overboard. Smith faced up to a decade in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The acquittal allowed Smith to return to Cimarron, where he has lived for almost 10 years. Sheesley said he has urged his client to return to his normal life as soon as possible. Smith could not be reached for comment.
“He’s back to not wearing shoes,” Sheesley said. “He’s on his boat, and I suspect he’s very happy.”