Official changing story in fatal boat crash

Thursday, August 30, 2007
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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The Lake County Sheriff's official involved in a fatal boat crash last year is changing his story. He's now claiming he wasn't driving his power boat so fast after all, the night it slammed into a sailboat and killed a woman.

Chief Deputy Russell Perdock has told his story three times now officially -- to a sergeant who works for him, to an independent investigator, and now, under oath, in a deposition for several lawsuits. On the topic of his boat's speed, his story has changed each time.

It's been a year and a half since a powerboat driven by Lake County Chief Deputy Sheriff Russell Perdock slammed into a sailboat at night, killing 51-year-old Lynn Thornton of Willows.

Now, Perdock's suing Thornton's fiance, who owned the sailboat, and the man steering the sailboat that night, claiming they didn't have their running lights on.

They're suing Perdock, too, saying the lights were on and that Perdock was driving too fast. Thornton's estate and her 21-year-old son are suing all of them.

Lawyer: "And what were the lighting conditions like outside at that time?"

Russell Perdock: "Dark."

There were some surprises in Perdock's deposition earlier this month, just obtained by the I-Team.

First, Perdock says he could clearly see lights on shore that night, but he couldn't see very far at all, right in front of his powerboat.

Lawyer: "How far out were you able to see clearly in front of your boat?"

Perdock: "Ten feet."

California boating law says: "An operator should be prepared to stop within the space of half the distance of forward visibility." That would be five feet in Perdock's case.

And a Sacramento sheriff's investigation concluded Perdock broke the law by failing to maintain a safe speed.

Still, the Lake County District Attorney declined to file charges against Perdock, instead charging the man steering the sailboat, again, based on the issue of lights.

Jon Hopkins, Lake County District Attorney: "The person at the ... who's the operator has the responsibility for making sure they're operating in a safe manner."

And now, Perdock's saying he wasn't driving so fast after all.

Just after the crash one of the men who works for him interviewed Perdock on this dock next to the powerboat.

Sergeant Dennis Ostini wrote, Perdock "estimated that he was traveling at approximately 40 mph."

Perdock: "As my recollection, I told him that I was traveling below that, I couldn't have been traveling above 40 miles an hour."

But a month and a half after the crash, an investigator from the Sacramento Sheriff's Office reports Perdock told him he was traveling 40 to 45 miles an hour that night.

Perdock: "What I'm saying is that isn't accurate."

Lawyer: "Okay. Do you know if you told Officer Slabaugh that you were traveling 40 to 45 miles per hour prior to the impact?"

Perdock: "If I did, I erred or he erred in his reporting of it."

According to that same report, Perdock also told the investigator, "I remember seeing both the tachometer and speed indicator pointing up, which would be 3,000 to 3,200 rpm and 40 to 45 mph."

Now Perdock's not so sure.

Perdock: "And do you know what the rpm's would be on that boat if the needle were pointing straight up?"

Perdock: "I don't recall."

Lawyer: "And do you know what the speed would be if the needle for the speedometer were pointing straight up?"

Perdock: "I don't recall."

Take a look at a photograph of his boat's dashboard. Perdock was correct in his earlier statement. If the tachometer were pointing up, that's 3,000 to 3,200 rpm's. And if the speedometer were pointing up, that's 55 to 60 miles an hour.

Peter Elmer, retired police sergeant: "I said to everybody who's sitting on the dock, 'there's a clown that's either going to kill himself or somebody else.'"

People on shore spotted Perdock's boat just before the crash, including a retired police sergeant who oversaw the marine unit for East Bay regional parks.

Peter Elmer, retired police sergeant: "My estimate was about 50 miles an hour, which is quite fast, especially at nighttime."

Despite Perdock's earlier estimates of 40 to 45 miles an hour, he's now saying he was driving more slowly.

Perdock: "What happened, I was asked a question regarding wind and wind noise."

Perdock says he reconsidered the conditions that night in conversations with his lawyers.

Perdock: "Based on wind speed, noise, all that, that would in estimation put my speed at between 30 to 35 miles an hour."

Even if you accept the low end of Perdock's estimate -- 30 miles an hour -- that's still 44 feet per second on a dark, moonless night. Perdock says he didn't have enough time to see the sailboat and take evasive action.

Lawyer for Thornton estate: "Sir, did you realize you were going to impact the sailboat prior to actually impacting into it?"

Perdock: "No."

Lawyer for Thornton estate: "When did you realize that you impacted into something?"

Perdock: "Immediately after we came to rest."

There's a court hearing in Lakeport on Friday. Lawyers for the man being charged in the crash, Bismarck Dinius, have filed a motion to remove the Lake County DA's office from the case, saying they're protecting one of their own by charging the wrong man. Dinius is also facing a charge of boating under the influence.

Read Dan Noyes' blog on the latest developments.

Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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