Monday, 22 July 2024

Top stories of 2009: No. 1, Bismarck Dinius acquitted in boat crash case

The badly damaged Beats Workin' II, photographed on August 27, 2009, shortly before it was released from evidence by the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.

LAKE COUNTY – On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 20, following six hours of jury deliberations, 13 days of testimony and 51 witnesses, a Lake County jury acquitted a Carmichael man of charges that he had been responsible for a fatal boat crash three years and four months earlier.

Bismarck Dinius, 41, hugged his attorney, Victor Haltom, in relief after the verdict from the nine-man, three-woman jury was read.

While the verdict brought an end to a long and complex criminal case, it also would open a new chapter in Dinius' story, one that will include a federal civil rights lawsuit set to be filed against the county of Lake early in the new year.

On that August morning, the jury found that Dinius was not guilty of felony boating under the influence causing great bodily injury or a misdemeanor count of boating under the influence. The jury deadlocked 11-1 on a misdemeanor count of boating with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08, a charge later dismissed.

Dinius had been at the tiller of the sailboat Beats Workin' II, owned by then-Willows resident Mark Weber, on Clear Lake on the night of April 29, 2006, out for an evening sail with friends following the Konocti Cup sailing races earlier that day.

On board were Weber's longtime girlfriend, Lynn Thornton, 51, and two new friends she had invited along – Zina Dotti and Ed Dominguez.

At about 9 p.m., as the sailboat was heading back across Konocti Bay to its mooring point at Richmond Park Bar & Grill – where Konocti Cup participants had gathered for a post-race dinner earlier that evening – the sailboat was hit from behind by a powerboat driven by Russell Perdock, an off-duty sheriff's deputy, who was accompanied by his friend, James Walker, and Walker's teenager daughter, Jordin.

Weber and Dinius both were seriously injured, as was Jordin Walker. Thornton died a few days later at UC Davis Medical Center due to blunt force trauma injuries to the head.

While Perdock wasn't charged, Dinius was. District Attorney Jon Hopkins alleged that Dinius had blood alcohol level of 0.12 at the time of the crash and that he had failed in his duty to have the sailboat's navigation lights on. A test had found Weber had a blood alcohol level of 0.18.

Haltom's experts – including Dr. William Chilcott – maintained the sailboat's lights were on, and that they had been knocked out when Perdock's powerboat – estimate to be traveling around 45 miles per hour – hit the sailboat, traveled up its mast and landed in the water on the boat's other side.

The trial drew worldwide attention, particularly from the sailing community, whose members felt that Dinius was being targeted in an effort to protect Perdock.

The case gained increasing attention since it was filed in 2007, almost exactly a year after the crash had occurred. That initial filing had included a manslaughter charge that Hopkins dismissed in July, about a week and a half before the trial started on July 28. Hopkins said, in doing so, that it was his opinion that the civil case settlement resolved the issues of responsibility for Thornton's death.

“Our first reaction was one of utter shock and, really, of outrage,” said Rick Thomsen, one of Lynn Thornton's older brothers who lives in Texas. “We thought, they're charging Bismarck Dinius and not Russell Perdock?”

Carol Stambuk, a close friend of Thornton's and the executor of her will, said Thornton – who at the time of her death had just retired from her job as an investigator with the state dental board – was “beyond safety conscious,” and she wouldn't have invited Dotti and Dominguez out on an unlit sailboat. Neither would Weber have gone out without the required running lights, she said.

Rick Thomsen agreed, noting his sister was very careful. “If she would have seen it was unlit, she would have said something.”

Roger Thomsen, Thornton's oldest brother, said after the crash, the first thing he asked Weber was if the lights were on. He said Weber looked him in the face and said yes, they were.

Thornton's friends and family said they wanted to share information with authorities, but weren't given the chance. So instead they wrote letters to the court and to Hopkins, which they said weren't acknowledged.

Hopkins said this week that he stands by the decisions he made in the case.

“The difficulty with the case was that the law regarding boating under the influence specifically states that the operator of a vessel is the person steering it,” he said this week.

While that's easy to understand where someone is steering a motor boat – because it's much like a car – Hopkins said the situation with a sailboat operator is much more complex, but there is not a separate definition for operating a sailboat.

“Our position was that since the law says the person steering the vessel is subject to the boating under the influence laws, that person was Dinius and it was his responsibility to be sober enough to know what he was in charge of as the helmsman steering the sailboat,” Hopkins said. “The owner of the sailboat was not steering, so he couldn’t be prosecuted for boating under the influence.”

Although he said many people wanted Perdock prosecuted simply because he was a deputy sheriff rather than the strength of the evidence, he said Perdock's blood was tested before Dinius' was and Perdock was found to have no alcohol in his system.

“There were really only two options for a prosecutor, turn your back on a case where an intoxicated person was the operator of a sailboat without running lights at night where another person was killed, or prosecute the intoxicated operator,” he said.




The Baja powerboat owned by Russell Perdock that collided with the Beats Workin' II on April 29, 2006. The boat was photographed on August 27, 2009, after the conclusion of the trial and before it was released from evidence by the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.



Case moves to trial

In 2008, Haltom had staged a tough defense during a preliminary hearing that stretched across four days in May and June, but in the end it was left up to a jury to decide.

The trial was set to begin May 19, with Judge J. Michael Byrne, a retired visiting judge, presiding.

But Deputy District Attorney John Langan, who was handling the case at the time, had filed a motion for a delay, seeking more time to investigate new information that he had received that indicated Perdock may have been at Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa in the hours before the crash, and that a deputy had corroborated former Sgt. James Beland's allegation that he was ordered not to give Perdock a breathalyzer test at the scene. Perdock's blood test occurred at St. Helena Hospital Clearlake.

During a May 19 hearing, Langan told the court he was concerned that he wouldn't be able to complete an in-depth investigation into the information, and stated that 911 calls in the crash had been purged. He indicated he might dismiss the case at a June 12 hearing.

“It's a possibility given the amount of investigation that we believe we would need to ethically do now before presenting a trial that would be fair to both sides,” Langan said at the time.

But Langan didn't get the chance to dismiss the case. At the June 12 hearing, Hopkins appeared, having taken over the case the previous week. At that time, Hopkins told the court the case would continue.

Over the following month, the sheriff's office would discover copies of the 911 tapes in the case, which Lake County News reported in an exclusive July 6 story. The information was disclosed to Lake County News as part of a Freedom of Information Act request filed for information about the 911 tapes.

When it finally began, the trial stretched over a month, as Hopkins and Haltom argued facts and battled over the allegations.

While Dinius was in the courtroom every day, he wasn't the only one on trial. The sense throughout the proceedings was that two men were being tried – Perdock in absentia, and Dinius in person. At times, Haltom seemed more of a prosecutor and Hopkins a defender, as Haltom attempted to focus the blame on Perdock.

Haltom told Lake County News this week that the majority of the discovery evidence he received from the prosecution was provided after the trial started.

Perdock had been scheduled to testify as a prosecution witness on Aug. 6, but Hopkins surprised the court by resting his case without calling Perdock to the stand. It later emerged that Hopkins had been notified that Perdock – on medical leave since June – was the subject of an internal affairs investigation.

Haltom called Perdock to the stand on Aug. 11. At that time, Perdock spent about an hour and a half on the stand, and during testimony maintained he had not set foot at Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa that day.

When the verdict was delivered to a hushed and crowded courtroom on Aug. 20, it was greeted with relief by the defense team and Thornton's friends and family, who said they were happy for Dinius.

“The right decision was made,” said Stambuk.

“My reaction to the verdict was, finally he gets justice,” said Roger Thomsen. “Thank God Dinius got off, and thank God the people of Lake County didn't buy into what the prosecutor was saying.”

Rick Thomsen was off from work on the day the verdict came in. He said he and his family in Texas stood around the computer and watched the Twitter updates come through from Lake County News and Bay Area reporter Dan Noyes.

“It was so weird, we kept saying to each other, this is like our verdict,” He said. “We were so nervous.”

He added, “It was like a family member of ours was on trial.”

Dinius said he and his wife greeted the verdict with joy and exhaustion.

“We were pretty confident that there wasn't a jury in the world that was going to convict me,” he said.

Weber said the verdict came out the way he had hoped, but he emphasized that it never should have gone to trial.

He also had taken the stand, and said he had been eager to do so after nearly three and a half years of keeping silent due to fears he also might be prosecuted.

Haltom said that, to him, the injustice of the prosecution was compelling to him.

“To this day, I can't figure out what made Lake County authorities tick,” he said.

He believes, as he asserted in court, that there was an effort to protect Perdock at the expense of Dinius.

“They had to know he was not guilty of causing Lynn's death,” Haltom said of his client.

Haltom, who also was strained financially by devoting himself entirely to the case, has gotten back to work in his own practice.

But he's far from done with the case.

He and the Northern California Innocence Project – which worked with him on Dinius' trial – are assisting Berkeley attorney Lawrence Masson in a civil rights case expected to be filed next month against the county of Lake. They've compiled a “mountain of documents” – Haltom estimated there are 10,000 pages of information compiled in the case so far.

The action will include a defamation filing against Hopkins – who before the trial issued a public letter on his reasons for pursuing the case – and also will name Sheriff Rod Mitchell, Perdock and some other individuals within the Lake County Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office.

“The ground work has been laid,” he said.

Masson couldn't be reached for comment on Thursday.

While the verdict was a relief, it couldn't bring back Thornton, a beloved partner, mother, sister and friend.

“The person who killed my sister is still out there,” said Roger Thomsen, referring to Perdock.

“We're still grappling with, what about Lynn?” Stambuk said.

In the case of Perdock, Mitchell confirmed to Lake County News this week that he still has not returned to work after being placed on medical leave in June.

Officials defend their work on the case

Hopkins said if Perdock had been charged, his attorney would have argued that he was sober, his speed couldn't be proved beyond reasonable doubt, that a reasonable speed would have resulted in the death, that all the witnesses to the collision said that the sailboat did not have its running lights on and that Dinius and Weber – both of whom were determined to be intoxicated – were responsible for the death.

“There is no way any responsible prosecutor would have charged the chief deputy,” said Hopkins. “The only reason would have been political and designed to curry favor with some people.”

Hopkins said the negative publicity – which he called “the most extreme example of abuse of publicity in a criminal case that I have seen in my 38 years in the criminal justice system” – resulted in a lot of people basing their opinions about the case on misinformation. Attempts to pressure his office even resulted in personal threats.

“It disturbs me that people who don't know me and how committed I am to making the right decisions and seeking justice, make all these outlandish untrue claims that can impact the confidence our local people have in their system of justice,” he said. “It doesn't affect the way I approach my work, because I know who I am and intend to remain true to myself.”

Hopkins said he's believed throughout his career that he can't base decisions “on the whims of political opinion.” He added that, “Decisions motivated by fear are not in the best interest of public safety.”

Like Hopkins' staff, Mitchell's also received abusive messages and harsh criticisms about the case. “My staff took an undue beating,” he said.

He said he feels his agency is a good enough organization to learn from cases like this one. “We do have to learn things from it.”

There are things there will never been in his control, he said. “I don't think anything was going to change the outcome of that case.”

Mitchell said he worked to be transparent, and brought in outside agencies – including a Sacramento County Sheriff's investigator and the Attorney General's Office, which reviewed his handling of the case and didn't find issues. “The attorney general validated our process,” he said.

“The filing is what seemed to alter the course,” he said.

Many people believe the criminal case filing was an injustice, and they associated the investigation with that filing, he said. “I think the evidence shows we did an unbiased investigation.”

Shortly after the trial ended, Mitchell asked a three-person panel to gather questions from the community, which he answered and posted online at his Web site under “Debriefing: The Final Report – November 3, 2009” ( ). The information was voluminous, and accompanied the sheriff's investigative files in the case.

Overall, he's received positive feedback from it, although he noted there is still confusion because of the sheer amount of information about the case.

Mitchell added of the case, “What I know to be true is nothing I would ever say for publication.”

Dinius deals with trial aftermath

Since the trial ended, Dinius said he's been coming to terms with the physical, emotional and financial impacts of his prosecution, all of which have been severe.

Even though the prosecution lost its case, Dinius said the case has left his life in ruins.

On May 18, he lost his job with Verizon, and with the Sacramento area's unemployment at nearly 18 percent, he's been unable to find work.

He's been trying to regroup, has sailed a little with a friend and said he's found out who his friends are – and who they aren't. He's grateful for the support from Thornton's family, and he said he thinks about her all the time.

Financially, “It's ruined me,” he said, noting his defense bills totaled about $300,000. While he's been unemployed he's struggled to pay off the experts in the case, but still owes Haltom – who worked the case full time for about six months before and during the trial – a large sum of money.

Dinius said the aftermath of the trial has been a difficult time.

“It really was the beginning of a different chapter,” he said. “It's been a struggle.”

“I feel so bitter about the district attorney and the sheriff's department and the way that they handled it and the way they treated me,” he said.

He said he's been very grateful for the financial support and notes of encouragement from people around the world, especially those in Lake County, for which he has a fondness thanks to that outpouring. He said he and his wife have been moved by the messages they've received.

“It's not over for me,” he said.




Lynn Thornton and her older brothers in happier times

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