Thursday, 02 February 2023

Department of Justice: Sailboat investigation handled correctly

LAKE COUNTY – A state Department of Justice review has concluded that the law enforcement investigation into an April 2006 sailboat crash that involved a top Lake County Sheriff's deputy and claimed the life of a Willows woman was handled properly. {sidebar id=47}


The attorney for a man facing criminal charges in the case, however, called the Department of Justice's review “meaningless.”


On Aug. 20, citing media reports – among them television broadcasts – about the case that left many county citizens “apprehensive about the adequacy and fairness of the subsequent investigation,” Sheriff Rod Mitchell requested the Attorney General's Office review Sacramento County's investigation and his department's procedures.


One of the factors drawing attention to the case was the involvement of Russell Perdock, a chief deputy with the Lake County Sheriff's Office, who was off duty at the time of the crash.


On the night of April 29, 2006, Perdock – at the wheel of his 24-foot speedboat – hit a 27-foot sailboat driven by Carmichael resident Bismarck Dinius and owned by Mark Weber of Willows.


The collision mortally injured Weber's fiancee, 51-year-old Lynn Thornton, who died May 2, 2006, at UC Davis Medical Center.


Because of Perdock's involvement, Mitchell requested the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office's Marine Services Unit conduct the investigation, as Lake County News has reported. Early in his law career Mitchell had worked as a deputy for Sacramento County.


Mitchell issued a Friday statement in which he related that the Department of Justice contacted him Dec. 10 that they would soon issue written findings in the case.


On Thursday, the findings were hand-delivered to Mitchell, he reported.


“I have determined that the contents of the report will not have an influence on issues pending before the Courts,” he stated. “Consequently, I am releasing the report in its entirety at this time.”


The nine-page report includes a cover letter to Mitchell from George B. Anderson, director of the Department of Justice's Division of Law Enforcement, in which Anderson states, “we did not find any areas requiring further investigation, or a need for policy enhancement based on the information you provided.”


The review's “Methodology” section explains that its scope and methodology were largely determined by Mitchell's request for a review of the investigation's sufficiency, areas for further investigation, and changes or enhancements to department policy.


“It was not the goal of this review to re-investigate this incident,” the document states. “Hence, this review relied expressly on written records and digital imagery generated by the Lake County and Sacramento County Sheriff's Departments, local hospital records and analysis records of the Department of Justice, Bureau of Forensic Services.”


An information interview of Mitchell also was conducted, the review states.


The review recounts the circumstances of the crash, and touches upon one of the most contentious issues surrounding the crash – whether or not Weber's sailboat, Beats Working II, was under way with its running lights on.


Weber and Dinius have contended that the boat's lights were on, and have cited the backup testimony of witnesses who saw the lights. However, the Department of Justice's review referenced the original investigation, which found the lights were not on, pointing to an examination of the switch panel that showed the bow and stern light switches were in the “off” position.


The document also explored the issue of Perdock's speed.


His speedboat hit near the sailboat's stern with such force that it went airborne and landed on the sailboat's other side, according to investigative documents. Perdock stated during an interview with Sacramento County Sheriff’s Marine Services Unit Investigator Charles Slabaugh that he was traveling between 40 and 45 miles per hours for a short period of time shortly before the crash took place.


The review found that the law enforcement response – including initial rescue and handling of the parties involved – followed standard law enforcement practice, as did the handling of evidence. It also concluded that Mitchell's request for a third-party investigation was “prudent given the involvement of the Lake County Sheriff's Chief Deputy, even though he was off duty at the time of the incident.”


The investigative reports and records portrayed “a consistent chronology of events with few minor exceptions where date/time errors were made on three medical forms.”


Those errors dealt specifically with the time and date entries on the medical forms when blood draws were taken at Redbud Hospital for Perdock and Sutter Lakeside for Dinius and Weber. In particular, the errors made it appear that Perdock's blood draw was taken nearly 24 hours after the accident; similarly, request for blood draw forms for Dinius and Weber showed incorrect times and dates.


“It is likely that the mistakes on the forms were due to fatigue, or carelessness of staff members in the last few minutes of the calendar day,” the report states.


Ultimately, the report concludes that the investigation “appears complete.”


The Department of Justice review itself appears to contain a few errors, among them the incorrect date of death for Lynn Thornton; it stated she died the day after the accident, not three days later. The name of the chief investigator from Sacramento County also is misspelled throughout.


In addition, the report stated that two Sacramento County Sheriff's investigators “conducted the remainder of the investigation” beginning May 1, 2006. However, investigation records obtained by Lake County News show that two Lake County Sheriff's deputies remained active in interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence after May 1.


Mitchell's Friday statement noted, “Nothing in the DOJ's findings can be expected to relieve the family and friends of Lynn Thornton of their sense of loss. Nor can this report lift the burden of anxiety for all of the people who were directly impacted by this incident.”


However, he concluded that the report should remove from county residents “any remaining doubts or apprehension” about his office's handling of the incident.


Defense attorney reacts to report


In June the Lake County District Attorney's Office charged Dinius with vehicular manslaughter involving a vessel and misdemeanor boating under the influence of alcohol, because he is alleged to have had a blood alcohol level of 0.12, as Lake County News has reported.


Perdock is not facing criminal charges in the case, although the findings of an investigation conduct by the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office found broke federal inland navigation rules by not adhering to the “safe speed” rule, which requires that a boat operator at all times maintain a speed that allows them to stop the vessel “within half the distance of forward visibility.”


Victor S. Haltom, the Sacramento attorney defending Dinius, said the review was meaningless and addresses “no issues of consequence” in the case.


Pointing to the review's stated scope, which the document stated was based largely on Mitchell's request letter, Haltom contended in e-mail correspondence with Lake County News, “Thus, this was not an independent review process. In order for it to have been independent, it would have been necessary for the scope and direction of the review process to be determined by the reviewing agency (DOJ), rather than the agency being reviewed (LCSO).”


Haltom, who earlier this year filed a motion to have the District Attorney's Office removed from the case because of its close working relationship with the sheriff's office – which he argued would make it difficult for Dinius to receive a fair trial – said those close connections are ignored in the review.


“The report does not note that Sheriff Mitchell was a groomsman in Mr. Perdock's wedding,” he wrote. “The report does not address the close relationships between the various law enforcement officials involved in this case.”


Nor did the Department of Justice contact him or any representatives of Dinius' defense for the review, Haltom added. “Only one side of the story was reviewed: the necessarily slanted LCSO side of the story.”


The Department of Justice review only looked at the law enforcement reports the case generated plus the “informational interview” of Mitchell, Haltom said, further evidence in his opinion that it was not an independent review.


“This was one government agency's endeavor to determine whether another government agency's conduct can plausibly be characterized as 'good enough for government work,'” he wroted. “Since DOJ's 'Investigative Review' does not fit the bill under this lowly standard, it does not provide a justification for finding that LCSO's investigation was good enough for government work. It plainly was not, as will be seen during the litigation of this case.”


Haltom added, “The reality of this case is plain. Mr. Perdock's recklessness caused Lynn Thornton's death. He alone is responsible. He knows it. LCSO knows it. The prosecution of Mr. Dinius is a travesty. The DOJ report does not address these issues. It is meaningless, bureaucratic poppycock.”


Case has had previous Attorney General involvement


This isn't the first time the California Attorney General's Office has been called in on some aspect of this case.


As noted previously, Haltom sought to have the District Attorney's Office removed from the case. That necessitated a response from the Attorney General's Office, which appeared in Lake County Superior Court on Aug. 31 and it successfully argued against Haltom's motion.


District Attorney Jon Hopkins told Lake County News earlier this year that he also had asked the Attorney General's Office for an opinion on whether or not his office should prosecute the case and who should be charged before he moved forward with prosecution.


Following a case review the Attorney General's Office found no reason for Hopkins' office not to proceed with the case.


To read the full Department of Justice report, visit the Lake County Sheriff's Web site at http://lakesheriff.com/docs/doj_boat.pdf.

 

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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