Sunday, 16 June 2024

Criminalist describes examining light bulbs in sailboat crash trial

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LAKEPORT – On Wednesday a criminalist told the jury in a fatal sailboat crash case that he believed the sailboat's stern light wasn't on when it was hit by a powerboat in April of 2006.

Criminalist Toby Baxter, a crash investigator, along with friends of the people involved in the April 29, 2006, crash made their way to the witness stand on day six of 41-year-old Bismarck Dinius' trial.

The Carmichael man is being tried for felony boating under the influence causing great bodily injury in connection with the crash. He was at the tiller of a sailboat owned by Willows resident Mark Weber when it was hit at night by a powerboat driven by an off-duty sheriff's deputy, Russell Perdock, who was not charged.

Weber's girlfriend, Lynn Thornton, sustained injures that she died from three days after the crash. The lights on the sailboat allegedly were not on when the crash occurred.

The day started with Lt. Charles Slabaugh of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office back on the stand under cross-examination by defense attorney Victor Haltom.

Slabaugh, who was asked to come in to lead the crash investigation, has so far spent nearly half a day on the stand in the trial, which was in its sixth day on Wednesday.

Under Haltom's questioning, Slabaugh said the crash involving Dinius and Perdock was the sixth he had investigated.

Slabaugh made findings, but the entirety of his report hasn't been revealed in the trial so far.

“Did you make a decision not to share with the jury your findings in this case?” Haltom asked. Slabaugh said no.

During direct questioning by District Attorney Jon Hopkins, Slabaugh was asked if he agreed with conclusions offered by Richard Snyder, a retired engineer who had testified about the crash and the powerboat on Tuesday. Haltom objected and Judge J. Michael Byrne sustained it. When Hopkins attempted to ask the question another way, Haltom lodged another successful objection by challenging the question's relevance.

Both Hopkins and Haltom closely questioned Slabaugh about inland waterway rules. Slabaugh teaches classes on the rules, and also holds a Coast Guard captain's license.

Hopkins asked Slabaugh if he had made a conclusion about the collision's dynamics. Slabaugh said he concluded that the Baja powerboat struck the sailboat's right stern quarter and continued over it.

Would the powerboat's operator have been able to see the sailboat's stern light if it were on? Hopkins asked. Slabaugh said he believed so.

Haltom asked if Slabaugh knew how far cabin light illumination would be visible. Slabaugh said he didn't.

The defense attorney then began questioning Slabaugh about his report's conclusions. Hopkins objected, but Byrne said, “We have to know where they hit.”

Haltom said Slabaugh didn't write in his report that this was a rear-end accident. “You allocated responsibility amongst the people involved in the accident, correct?” he asked.

Slabaugh said yes. Had he told the jury about that allocation? No, said Slabaugh.

The cabin lights, in Slabaugh's opinion, were on, based on eyewitness statements and the position of a switch on the lighting panel. Slabaugh had previously testified that the panel's toggles noted the running lights were off.

“Have you seen high velocity impacts that caused toggle switches to change position?” Haltom asked. Slabaugh said he hadn't.

Slabaugh recounted that Perdock told him he didn't seen any lights on the water that night. Perdock also reported that the crash occurred about a minute after he came around Fraser Point – the northernmost point that denotes the boundary of Konocti Bay – heading south toward Richmond Park Bar & Grill.

Haltom asked if Slabaugh agreed with the assessment Snyder gave on the stand Tuesday that Perdock was traveling between 40 and 50 miles per hour a the time of the collision with the sailboat. Slabaugh said yes.

Slabaugh said he used Perdock's speed and the amount of time he was under way to try to determine the crash location. On May 2, 2006, he and Boat Patrol Supervisor Sgt. Dennis Ostini went out on the lake during daylight hours to try to come to a conclusion about where the crash took place. When Haltom asked the location of where he believed the crash occurred, Hopkins objected, saying it was irrelevant, and Byrne sustained.

Under the rules of navigation, whose responsibility is it to turn on the stern light? Haltom asked. Slabaugh said it can be one of several people – the person operating the boat, crew members, the master or others on board.

Hopkins asked Slabaugh if there were rules in which a sailing vessel needed to stay out of the way of other vessels. Slabaugh said yes. Do cabin lights satisfy a sailing vessel's legal lighting requirements? No, Slabaugh said.

During his investigation, Slabaugh found wires leading from the running light switch which were frayed after having been pulled out of a clip holding them in place. Haltom asked if that was a result of the crash, and Slabaugh said yes.

Haltom asked Slabaugh about rule 19 of the inland navigation rules, which addresses conduct of vessels in restricted visibility. Part of the rule Haltom quoted states, “A power driven vessel shall have her engines ready for immediate maneuver.”

Hopkins asked Slabaugh about example of restricted visibility. Slabaugh said fog, mist, rain and sand storms are examples. Haltom asked if night was a restricted visibility situation. Slabaugh said not in his opinion.

Criminalist details findings about light bulbs

Most of the day's testimony came from California Department of Justice criminalist Toby Baxter, who spent close to three and a half hours detailing his conclusion that the sailboat's stern light was off at the time of the collision, based on a forensic examination of the light bulbs and filaments.

Baxter, with the DOJ since 1985, is stationed in the Eureka office. Head lamp analysis has been one of his work areas since 1999.

This was the first case he's investigated which involved a boat light, but Baxter said boats use lights that are similar to those in automobiles.

Before Hopkins' questioning of Baxter got very far, Haltom received Byrne's permission to question Baxter's qualifications. Baxter had one formal three-day DOJ course on headlight analysis in 1999, has done his own research and read literature in the field. Haltom objected to his qualifications but Byrne overruled, saying there was reason to admit his testimony.

Baxter explained how incandescent light bulbs work. They're outfitted with tungsten filaments that can withstand the extremely high temperatures – between 2,200 and 2,500 degrees centigrade (or about 4,000 to 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit)– used to light the bulbs. Tungsten has high tensile strength and is able to maintain its shape for a considerable amount of time compared to other metals.

Baxter received three lights – the sailboat's mast, stern and bow lights. The stern and bow lights were the focus of his testing, which included looking at the broken filaments in the stern light.

Hopkins asked what can happen if a tungsten filament is subjected to a sharp impact. Baxter explained that tungsten is not prone to break as much as it it to stretch and deform. When it cools it can become more brittle and can break, but that “cold break” looks different than it would when the filament is hot when the breakage occurs.

There are ways to determine if the filament was on when it broke, said Baxter. That includes finding tungsten oxide, a white or yellow powder that forms as a reaction when oxygen hits the tungsten.

If deformation and alignment of the coil structure inside the bulb resulted from whipping of the support posts, Baxter said the filament would likely remain shiny but would look distorted or, as Hopkins suggested, like a stretched Slinky.

A collision could cause a hot or cold break, said Baxter. He noted that a filament wouldn't break as easily when it's warmer and ductile.

The light bulbs Baxter evaluated in this case were cylindrical festoon bulbs, which he said are frequently used for auto dome lights.

Baxter examined the stern light bulb's filament to determine what kind of breakage occurred. He said the broken areas were angular and grainy in appearance, “which is consistent with a cold break.”

In a cold break, the filament will resemble the uneven edges of a green stick when it's broken, said Baxter.

He used stereo and comparison microscopes to look closely at the filament, and concluded the stern light wasn't on when it was broken.

Hopkins asked if a a cold break could look like a hot break if the posts inside the bulb whip and break the filament. Yes, said Baxter, but he said the filament in that case would be more likely to break than to stretch when it's cold and brittle.

Reviewing a series of pictures of the lights, Baxter noted that the stern light, the cover of which was missing with pieces broken out and a whole light bulb with a broken filament, “did receive some fair amount of damage.”

Some of the pictures, which Hopkins showed to the court on a projector, were taken by Baxter on a comparison microscope, and showed the twisted and broken stern light filament and the unbroken bow light filament side by side. He also compared the bulbs with brand new bulbs.

Several of the photos also showed filaments of bulbs used in an experiment that Baxter conducted to see what would happen if power to the lights was cut a second or a second and a half before an impact. The bulbs were affixed to a lamp structure in a two by four board that Baxter than slammed on the floor.

One of the photos of a filament that had the power cut a second and a half before impact had some stretching but could be a “close call” because it had attributes of both a hot and cold break, said Baxter.

A filament with the power cut a second before an impact had a bowed coil “more consistent with hot shock,” he said, with the filaments not completely cooled.

Filaments of the size used in these bulbs can take from two to four seconds to cool down before passing the transition phase and becoming brittle, said Baxter.

“My conclusion is there is no evidence of hot shock or warm shock that I could observe,” said Baxter, adding that he he wouldn't have an opinion about when the filament break occurred.

Haltom asked if Baxter had reached a conclusion about whether the unbroken bow light had been on or off at the time of impact. Baxter said he hadn't.

Pointing to a picture of the broken stern light filament, which had a wave shape, Haltom asked if that could be indicative of hot shock. Baxter said it could be but other factors would have to be considered.

Baxter, who began working on the lights in April of 2007, couldn't answer questions about direct current and alternating current as it would have pertained to the bulb's operation. He said that, based on his reading of the investigative literature, it's never been an issue.

Haltom presented Baxter with a copy of a report he wrote this past April. The report listed a victim and a suspect. When Haltom questioned him on who those subjects were, Hopkins objected, saying it was irrelevant.

The report, the second Baxter had prepared, was in reaction to documents from a defense experted that needed to be addressed.

Baxter said he received the transcript of the preliminary hearing testimony of Dr. William Chilcott. After seeing that report Baxter conducted the experiments.

Haltom wanted to know if it would be possible to have an event where there is one crash with multiple impacts, with the stern light suffering different shocks. Baxter said he's not an expert on boat accident reconstruction and couldn't offer an informed opinion.

After the jury was allowed to leave for lunch, Haltom asked Byrne to let him question Baxter about the “victim” and “suspect” notations on his report.

He said the report listed Dinius as the suspect and Perdock as the victim. “That's clearly relevant to a central theme of this case, that this is a slanted investigation designed to deflect blame away from Russell Perdock,” Haltom said, adding that it's absurd to list Perdock as the victim when it's Thornton who died.

Hopkins said in other places of the report a victim and suspect aren't listed. He argued that the issue wasn't relevant. Byrne said he would allow Haltom to ask the question but it needed the relevant foundation.

Experiment had variables that are hard to duplicate

After court reconvened following lunch, Haltom questioned Baxter closely on whether or not his experiments could be exactly replicated. Baxter said there were several variables that couldn't be duplicated in another set of tests, such as the amount of force he used to slam the two by four.

Haltom then returned to the issue of the victim and suspect notations. Baxter said he wasn't sure why it was listed the way it was. “I'd have to say that was a typo on my part.”

Hopkins objected to the questioning, but Byrne overruled him, and allowed the jury to hear that Perdock had been listed as the victim and Dinius the suspect.

When Haltom asked if the wave shape in the broken filament could have resulted from one impact, with a second impact breaking it, Baxter said he saw no evidence to support that hypothesis. In that case there would still be evidence of a hot break, which Baxter said isn't in evidence.

Haltom raised statements Baxter had made during a previous deposition, in which he had stated that he couldn't rule out the possibility that the stern light was on when the crash occurred. Baxter didn't recall making that statement, and after reading over the transcript called the document confusing.

Based on his examination of the broken ends of the stern light bulb's filament, Baxter believed the light wasn't on. “I don't believe I offered a conclusion as to when that filament was actually broken and I don't believe I can.”

He added, “The only thing I'm willing to say with any real conviction here is the lamp was not on when it broke.”

The wave shape of the broken light could be a result of the manufacturing process, but Baxter said he didn't contact any bulb manufacturers. He doubted they would discuss their manufacturing processes based on the desire to protect proprietary information.

Afternoon witnesses fill in variety of details

A group of witnesses followed Baxter to the stand Wednesday afternoon, some of them testifying for only a matter of minutes.

Wes Frey, a retired deputy sheriff currently working as a part-time sheriff's welfare fraud investigator, said in April 2006 he was working on detective sergeant overseeing the sheriff's welfare unit.

He said he had heard about the crash and opened up a supplemental report filed on the incident by then-Sgt. James Beland. Last week, Beland testified that his reports on the crash had been changed, but when questioned by Hopkins Beland said he had been directed to make some of the changes by a superior officer.

The RIMS software the sheriff's office uses shows an audit trail, and Frey's name appeared on the audit report, however, he said he didn't change anything.

Jeff Holdener, who owns property on the lakeshore on Soda Bay Road, followed Frey to the stand.

Two young women who testified in the trial last week, Jennifer Patterson and Gina Seago, were visiting with Holdener's family on April 29, 2006, when they witnessed the crash and came running in to tell Holdener, who was playing cards with family.

Holdener, his brother-in-law and nephew got in Holdener's wakeboard board with a light bar and went out to offer help at the crash scene, being careful for fear people were in the water.

“The first thing we saw was the sailboat,” he said, noting the smell of fiberglass in the air.

Another boat towed the sailboat to Boren Bega, which Holdener said was on a straight course from the crash scene.

“The sailboat was just chaos,” he said. “There was a lot of people hurt. There was a lot of people bleeding.”

Men from the nearby Young Scandinavians Club had come out to help as well, with two of them doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Thornton, Holdener said.

Stephanie Green, a friend of both Weber and Thornton's, recalled meeting them for dinner at Richmond Park Bar and Grill at around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., several hours before the crash.

Weber had competed in the Konocti Cup earlier that day and had won, and she recalled Weber and Thornton as being very excited.

Green said she and her husband, Rob, were with Weber and Thornton, and they were drinking beer and wine with dinner. A large group was at the restaurant, where there was barbecuing and karaoke.

That night she met Dinius for the first time, recalling he was “having fun like everyone else.”

Weber and Thornton invited the Greens to joint them for the cruise. “My husband talked me out of going,” Stephanie Green said, acknowledging that she can't swim.

She said she was probably upset with her husband, but agreed not to go.

Green recalled saying goodbye to Thornton, who she said she adored. Waving goodbye as the sailboat pulled out using its motor, Green recalled seeing its lights on.

Hopkins asked her if she had a chance to see Weber's state of intoxication. Green, who was a police officer for 15 years, said he was “highly intoxicated.” She said she had told Haltom's investigator that Weber was, to use the more colorful term, “s***-faced.”

Green said she couldn't assess Dinius' condition. “We were all drinking.”

Last on the stand Wednesday was Craig Scovel, a friend of Perdock's since high school, who responded to the crash scene that night and towed Perdock's damaged powerboat back to the sheriff's boat barn.

On the evening of the crash, Scovel took his own powerboat over to Konocti Harbor for a beer and a hamburger, and testified there were few people at the resort that night. He didn't see Perdock; if he had, Scovel said he would have talked to him.

Later, as he was heading home after dark, Scovel said he heard a helicopter. When he was almost home he got a call from Perdock's mother who said Perdock had been in a crash.

Scovel and two friends went back across to Bayshore Resort where they found Perdock on shore. Perdock asked Scovel to go back to Lily Cove and get his pickup and boat trailer, which Scovel did. He found the truck and trailer parked near the dock of the homeowners association where Perdock lives. Scovel said he hadn't seen the truck and trailer there when he left on his trip to Konocti at around 7 p.m.

Scovel's testimony provided some confusion, as he repeatedly said he believed it was a Friday night when he went to the resort. However, Haltom pointed out during his cross-examination that April 29, 2006, was a Saturday. Scovel said he couldn't remember for sure if it was a Friday, but he knew it was the same night as the crash.

Haltom said the whole point of the testimony that it was a Friday was to establish that not many people were there that night. Hopkins objected and Byrne sustained. “I think we probably figured it out,” said Byrne.

Would there have been more people at the resort on a Saturday than a Friday? Haltom asked. “Not necessarily,” said Scovel, pointing out it was April at the time, not the busier summer season.

Haltom asked if Scovel had made different statements previously.

He then asked Scovel if his goal on the stand is to give “Mr. Hopkins what he wants” through the testimony. “I'm not sure what he wants,” said Scovel.

Perdock himself is expected to come to the stand Thursday, when testimony resumes.

Witnesses so far, in order

Day one (following opening statements): James Ziebell, sailor, helped skipper Beats Workin' II in Konocti Cup; Doug Jones, past commodore of local sailing club; Anthony Esposti*, fisherman; Colin Johnson*, fisherman.

Day two: Lake County Sheriff's Det. Jerry Pfann; Andrea Estep*, phlebotomist, St. Helena Hospital-Clearlake (formerly Redbud Community Hospital); former sheriff's Sgt. James Beland; LaDonna Hartman, phlebotomist, Sutter Lakeside Hospital; retired sheriff's Sgt. Mark Hoffman; California Department of Justice criminalist Gregory Priebe, Santa Rosa lab; California Department of Justice criminalist Gary Davis, Sacramento toxicology lab.

Day three: Jennifer Patterson, witnessed crash from Holdener property on lakeshore; Gina Seago, witnessed crash from Holdener property on lakeshore; Jordin Walker, passenger on Russell Perdock's powerboat; James Walker*, high school friend of Perdock's and passenger on his powerboat; sheriff's Deputy Mike Morshed*; sheriff's communications operator Kimberly Erickson; sheriff's Boat Patrol Deputy Lloyd Wells*.

Day four: Craig Woodworth, the District Attorney's Office's acting chief investigator; John Yount, criminalist with the California Department of Justice's Santa Rosa lab; sheriff's Det. Jerry Pfann; Boat Patrol Supervisor Sgt. Dennis Ostini; Lt. Charles Slabaugh of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office.

Day five: Richard Snyder, retired Mercury Marine engineer; Lt. Charles Slabaugh of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office.

Day six: Lt. Charles Slabaugh of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office; California Department of Justice criminalist Toby Baxter; retired Sgt. Wes Frey, Lake County Sheriff's Office; Jeff Holdener, who responded to the crash scene via boat; Stephanie Green, friend of Weber and Thornton, who saw them leave in the sailboat a few hours before the crash; Craig Scovel, friend of Perdock's who assisted in taking his boat and trailer to the sheriff's Boat Patrol building.*

* = Indicates a witness subject to recall at the request of the defense.

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

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