The voice of a Contra Costa woman who suffered debilitating injuries during a July 24, 2016, boating accident on Lake Tulloch quavered and stuttered as she struggled to recollect when a 30-foot cigar boat collided with an inner tube she was riding on with a friend.
Rachael Pringle could not remember the moment of the accident, she testified Friday morning at the Calaveras County Superior Court, but she said she had dealt with incapacitating disabilities and physical rehabilitation ever since.
“My voice,” she stammered, breaking into tears and averting her eyes from from the courtroom. “I can’t talk and I can’t swallow the same.”
After waking from a coma five to six weeks following the accident, Pringle spent many more weeks in a hospital in a state of minimal consciousness.
Still recovering from a brain injury, Pringle said she struggled with an incomplete memory and loss of vision. There was metal in her left leg, she said, and she was disabled by neuropathy, or nerve damage, in her arm.
“It’s always cold,” she said, clad in a large black jacket lined with fur along the hood.
Led to the stand by her husband Brian Pringle, who also testified Friday, Rachael Pringle cast a glare at Dean Payne, the Copperopolis man charged with operating a vessel while under the influence causing great bodily injury, and the special allegations of inflicting great bodily injury and inflicting great bodily by causing a victim to become comatose because of brain injuries.
Robin Tsai, whom Rachael Pringle identified as a friend during her testimony, also sustained severe injuries.
For most of the trial day, Payne sat with his hands folded in front of him, standing only to acknowledge the arrival or departure of the jury, made up of six women and 10 men, including the four alternates.
Visibly unresponsive to almost all of the testimony on Friday, Payne clutched the bridge of his nose and looked downward after Rachael Pringle left the room.
Brian Pringle was emphatic in his testimony that he had not forgotten what occurred that day at about 4:30 p.m., near the western shore of a vertical finger of Lake Tulloch, above the Lakes Treatment Center, and south of the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge.
He had been on a 20-foot ski boat with his six-year-old son, 6-month-old daughter, and friends Dustin Torrez, Kimberly Glover and Jeffrey Stetson, while his wife and Tsai were being towed in a two-person inner tube at the rear of the boat.
Suddenly, Torrez yelled out loud and waved his arms toward a “much larger” boat bearing down in their direction, he said.
Torrez twisted the steering to the left to avoid a head-on collision, but the large boat “went right over the top of them,” Brian Pringle said, indicating to his wife and friend on the inner tube.
“I saw it and I heard it.”
The next moment, the inner tube seemed to have disappeared. Both his wife and Tsai were face down, floating in the water with their life-jackets, he said.
His voice nearly breaking with emotion, he said he secured his children in their seats before jumping into the water “as quickly as I could.”
“I flipped her upside down and I saw she was bleeding and her lips were blue,” he said.
Rachael was transferred onto the boat when Tim Saito, an off-duty Modesto Fire Department firefighter who testified on Thursday, arrived to assist with CPR.
His children were just feet away from their wounded mother, he said, and his son was “screaming and spinning in circles.”
Many months after the incident at Kensington Hospital, Brian Pringle said, indicating to photographs projected in the courtroom by Deputy District Attorney Brad Jones, Rachael Pringle still required the use of a walker and had only just regained the strength to stand up without assistance.
James O’Bird, 42, a state prison parolee and an occupant of the about 30-foot “Miami Vice boat” with Payne, said he not only saw the “horrific accident,” but attempted to flee because he was “nervous” to be involved.
O’Bird reenacted turning to Payne moments after the vessel had struck the inner tube.
“Are you (expletive) kidding me, dude? You just smoked two broads, man,” O’Bird said, adding that Payne replied, “No, I didn’t.”
“I’m on parole, man, I’m outta here,” O’Bird remembered saying, before jumping off Payne’s vessel and into Lake Tulloch to swim away.
“In my experience, when (expletive) goes down, you run,” he said.
O’Bird had been compelled to appear Friday after failing to arrive Thursday at the court and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
O’Bird made his frustration clear on multiple occasions during his testimony, becoming frustrated and argumentative with Payne’s defense attorney Ken Foley, of San Andreas, when questioned about his criminal history, status on post-release community supervision, and if he jerked the wheel from Payne during the accident.
“I’m not happy,” he said, unprompted, taking his seat at the stand. “I’m in a courtroom.”
O’Bird, with tattoos snaking up his arm, neck, and under his eye, was wary of any insinuations implicating him, but admitted to taking a “good pull” on a Corona and smoking marijuana on the lake in violation of his post-release terms.
And though he struggled to recall certain details, he said two years of sobriety had reinforced his memory to a few specific details: Payne had been driving the boat the entire day while drinking, but Payne had been unable to see the accident due to the verticalization of the bow of the boat, which was traveling at 55 miles per hour when it collided with the inner tube.
Video surveillance shown during his testimony showed Payne and O’Bird arriving at the Kiva dock of Lake Tulloch, and Payne driving the vehicle out onto the lake.
After being shuttled to the shore by another boat, he said, multiple people with cell phones “tracked him” as he walked along the road. Ignoring his impulse to flee, O’Bird said he gave a statement to deputies identifying Payne as the driver of the boat involved in the accident.
California Department of Justice Criminalist James Holt later testified that the results of Payne’s blood draw revealed him to have a BAC of .238 at 6:55 p.m. the day of the accident, an increase from the BAC of .205 recorded during a preliminary breath test at 6:42 p.m.
Both Jones and Foley instructed Holt, who related concepts such as alcohol absorption and elimination to the jury, to a series of hypothetical scenarios about how many beers, or “standard drinks,” Payne could have drank leading up to and after the accident to generate his BAC.
Testimony from partners Andrea Santa Cruz and Gilbert Estrada, who both said they did not see the accident but watched and followed O’Bird after he fled the boat, also reported seeing Payne drink a beer before contacting deputies on the shore.
“That upset me, to see that,” Santa Cruz said. “I just felt like it was obvious that he was intoxicated or under the influence of something, but just that final action, it was upsetting.”
Both Santa Cruz and Estrada also corroborated earlier testimony by Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Corporal Tyson McMahon, the first deputy to arrive on the scene, he said, about Payne drunkenly falling into the water during his approach to shore.
Payne was driving the boat and collided with a rock basin during his approach to the shoreline, McMahon said.
He ordered Payne off the boat, who stood, fell back into his seat, stood again, slumped over the windshield, and then stumbled and fell into the waters of Lake Tulloch.
Payne resurfaced after about seven seconds and attempted to grab at a rock, McMahon said, but the deputy was required to physically pull him out of the water.
Payne appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, he added, and apologized “for us being there” before placing him in handcuffs and handing custody of him over to Deputy Shawn Cechini.
Cechini, a Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Marine Safety Division deputy and a lead investigator on the case, conducted a field sobriety test on Payne, determined him to be under the influence of alcohol and placed him under arrest.
Foley also made repeated inquiries to McMahon and Cechini about why a further investigation was not made into the status of the victim’s boat following the accident, and into the driver, Dustin Torrez.
Foley took particular issue with an element of Cechini’s report which indicated Torrez “had been drinking,” but his impairment level was unknown. Cechini often averted his eyes from Foley when speaking and instead spoke in the direction of the jury, but arose toward the projected document to testify that he had checked the box because he had not known whether Torrez was drinking or not.
Foley also made repeated inquiries into when and how Payne was told his Miranda Rights at the scene, later at the Calaveras County Jail, and on July 30, when he was again arrested on additional charges.
Cechini testified that Payne had made incriminating statements alluding to his driving the vehicle while under the influence, but had not recorded the statements, to which Foley responded, “you're telling us what he said and there’s no other evidence of it, are you aware of that?”
The trial will continue on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. in Department 3 of the Calaveras County Superior Court and is expected to conclude by Feb. 2, Judge Susan C. Harlan said.