Wednesday, 24 July 2024

District attorney: Manslaughter charge against Dinius to be dropped

LAKE COUNTY – District Attorney Jon Hopkins said Friday that he intends to drop a felony vehicular manslaughter charge against a Carmichael man who was piloting a sailboat involved in a fatal collision three years ago.

However, Hopkins said he'll still move forward in prosecuting a charge of felony boating under the influence charge causing great bodily injury against Bismarck Dinius, 41, who is facing trial later this month in connection to the April 29, 2006, boat crash that took the life of 51-year-old Willows resident Lynn Thornton.

Dinius' blood alcohol level allegedly was 0.12, according to a blood test result the prosecution will present. The legal limit is 0.08.

“I'm glad that he is moving to dismiss the manslaughter charge. That's the right thing to do,” said Victor Haltom, Dinius' attorney.

Haltom added, however, that the remaining charge still contends that Dinius caused Thornton's death.

Dinius was steering a sailboat belonging to Thornton's boyfriend, Mark Weber of Willows, on that April night when it was hit by a powerboat driven by Russell Perdock, an off-duty sheriff's chief deputy. Perdock was not charged in the case.

The District Attorney's Office charged Dinius with felony vehicular manslaughter with a boat and felony boating under the influence of alcohol.

Dinius also is facing two misdemeanor charges – driving with a blood alcohol level over 0.08 and driving while under the influence. Haltom said those two charges are “lesser included offenses” that appear in prosecutions where there are felony DUI charges.

“Mr. Dinius could only be convicted of those if the jury rejected the felony charges,” he explained.

Hopkins – who last month took over prosecuting the casing himself – said on Friday that next Tuesday he'll enter a motion before visiting Judge J. Michael Byrne to drop the vehicular manslaughter charge.

Jury selection has been under way over the last few weeks, with testimony expected to begin on July 28.

Dropping the manslaughter charge won't change the trial going forward, as the charges haven't yet been read to the jury, said Hopkins.

Haltom is concerned about the felony boating under the influence charge, which he said is essentially the same as manslaughter. Both carry lower and middle terms of 16 months and two years, respectively, while the boating under the influence charge carries a maximum prison term of three years, just one year less than felony manslaughter.

“There remains in this case an absurd and ridiculous and unsupportable felony charge against Mr. Dinius which is being presented to a jury by a man who has clearly not read and digested his own file in the case,” said Haltom.

On Friday, Hopkins issued an open letter explaining his decision in the case. To see the letter in its entirety, click here: District attorney offers open letter to community on sailboat case .

“I'm floored by this letter. I've never seen anything like it,” said Haltom. “We're in jury selection and he's throwing out a letter like this.”

He said he was struck by the hypocrisy of issuing the letter, just a few months after the District Attorney's Office sought a gag order on principals in the case. Byrne denied the motion.

Haltom said Hopkins' Friday letter is riddled with false and incorrect assertions. He further alleged it omits many pieces of important information, with Hopkins not addressing scientific evidence, talking to some witnesses in the case – such as Hans Peter Elmer, a retired law enforcement officer who alleges that he saw Perdock's boat traveling at a high rate of speed – or discussing Perdock's speed or any of the issues about his involvement.

Neither do Hopkins and Haltom agree that a previous driving under the influence conviction against Dinius can be introduced during this prosecution.

In his letter, Hopkins explained that he reviewed the findings of a civil lawsuit regarding Thornton's death. That was was settled before going to a jury; Haltom said the insurance for Dinius, Weber and Perdock paid out nearly $300,000 each, with Weber and Dinius each receiving five-figure settlements.

In civil cases, a jury determines comparative negligence and a percentage of fault, which isn't done in criminal cases, said Hopkins.

He told Lake County News on Friday that he's satisfied that the civil suit resolved the liability issue for Thornton's death.

“I wanted to make sure responsibility was taken, and it was,” he said, adding there's no need to pursue the criminal negligence aspect in the form of the manslaughter charge.

Last month, Hopkins personally took over prosecuting the case from Deputy District Attorney John Langan.

While he said he “can't really say anything” about his reasons for that move, he said he has taken a hands-on approach to investigating the collision.

“It really helps to be able to go out and see where people were, talk to them about what they saw and just get a more complete understanding of what was involved,” he said.

“We're finding things out as we go,” he added, explaining, “You never get the whole picture reading reports.”

Haltom has consistently pointed to Perdock's alleged culpability in the case, accusing him of driving his power boat as fast as 60 miles per hour and having access to evidence in the case – from the boats to his own blood samples to copies of 911 tape that had been reported missing. He's also brought forward witnesses who claim to have seen Perdock at Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa in the hours before the crash.

Dropping the manslaughter charge, Haltom suggested, could be an effort by Hopkins to reduce the evidence produced at trial about Perdock's culpability. “That ain't gonna fly,” Haltom said.

But, in addressing those accusations against Perdock, Hopkins said, “They don't have any proof of anything. They have a bunch of wild speculation.”

He said he's made it a point for his office to investigate those allegations seriously, “and I have to date found no evidence that supports any of those claims.”

Hopkins added, “I've turned over a lot of rocks and there's nothing underneath them.”

He did not indicate any charges would be filed against anyone else in relation to the case.

As testimony gets set to start later this month, Haltom said he intends to file a motion seeking a “jury view.”

He's asking Byrne to consider allowing the jury to be taken out on Clear Lake by pontoon boat at night so they can see a sailboat maneuvering “at various distances and under various lighting conditions.”

His motion notes that lights on other vessels and shore lights can be indistinguishable at night and “it is difficult for people to be made to understand this phenomenon unless they experience it firsthand.”

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

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