Witnesses occupying boats at Lake Tulloch on July 24, 2016, pulled out their cell phone cameras to capture an image of a man accused of slamming into and severely injuring two women on an inner tube while operating his 30-foot “cigar style boat” under the influence of alcohol.
Their photographs flashed on a projector screen one after the other at the Calaveras County Superior Court on Monday.
“I saw the boat hit the tube with the tubers on it,” said Victoria Gaffney, who testified with her husband, Paul “Dax” Gaffney, Monday morning. “There was a lot of yelling that day… yelling for people to breathe that were onshore, yelling for help, an array of yelling.”
Victoria Gaffney closed her eyes at the point of impact, she said, but when she opened them, she watched the “cigar style boat” speed away from the scene without decelerating.
Looking up at a photograph snapped by Victoria Gaffney from her boat, 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, nervously quivered his fingers.
Payne, sitting just a few yards away in the courtroom, was the man in the photograph operating the boat, Victoria Gaffney said.
Payne kept his eyes averted toward the projector screen, and placed his hands in his lap after noticing their subtle tremor.
Deputy District Attorney Brad Jones said he could not comment about Payne’s possible jail time if convicted of the crimes because the trial was still pending.
The commotion attracted the attention of multiple boaters and recreators on the lake that day, who congregated near the western shore of a vertical finger of Lake Tulloch, above the Lakes Treatment Center, and south of the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge.
Natalie Cliff was boating on the lake with her sister and teenage sons the day of the accident and didn’t see the collision, she testified.
But minutes after it reportedly occurred, she said a mounting chorus of witnesses were calling to the driver of the “cigar style boat” to be apprehended or report to the shore.
Cliff sought to emphasize the apparent intoxication of Payne in a photo taken by her sister, depicting who she said was Payne, collapsed in the driver’s seat of the “cigar style boat.”
“I didn’t see his head erect, I see him slumped over. Just like I did that day,” she said, responding to Payne’s defense attorney, Ken Foley of San Andreas.
When a teenaged man entered onto the boat to direct Payne’s boat toward the shoreline, she added, he waved a beer in the air, appearing to regard the mounting calls for his attention as a “celebration” rather than a cause for concern.
California Department of Justice Criminalist James Holt testified on Friday that, according to a blood draw, Payne had a BAC of .238 at 6:55 p.m. the day of the accident.
By the time Payne made it to the shoreline, stumbled out of his vessel and into the waters of Lake Tulloch, and was detained for a field sobriety test by Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies, other witnesses testified Friday, emergency aid was already being rendered to two female victims that had been struck by the vessel while riding on an inner tube towed by a 20-foot ski boat.
Rachael Pringle, of Contra Costa, and Robin Tsai, of Walnut Creek, each sustained debilitating and irrecoverable injuries in the accident, testified Dr. David Palestrant, a neurological and critical care physician at Kentfield Hospital in the bay area.
Pringle, who testified Friday, still bore the wounds of the collision and her subsequent coma more than a year after the accident, Palestrant said, and required intense physical and mental rehabilitation to recover from a severe traumatic brain injury, fractures to her leg and patella, and a tracheotomy.
Pringle will never fully recover, Palestrant said.
“She will never get back to being the same person she was,” he said.
Tsai has not yet testified, though she is listed as a witness in the trial.
Both Tsai and Pringle arrived at Kentfield hospital on the same day, Palestrant said, but Tsai was required to stay at the facility over a month longer than Pringle due to the extent of her injuries.
Tsai sustained facial, skull, rib and leg fractures, a ligament injury in the neck, and operations to remove air in her lung, Palestrant said.
A blood clot that had fomented in the right side of her brain had caused a “devastating” aphasia impacting her ability to understand language and communicate, and massive strokes to both sides of her brain had incapacitated her ability to walk and see, he said.
Tsai had undergone an operation early in her recovery where her entire skull was removed to reduce blood swelling on her brain and eyes, he added.
“My expectation was that she was going to be left with permanent injury that she would never quite recover,” he said.
Foley had no questions for the doctor, but with each of the witnesses and law enforcement officers, he sought additional details about the physical positioning of his client in the boat, and a clear explanation of both vessels’ direction and evasion maneuvers to avoid a head-on collision.
With the Gaffneys and Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office Detective and summertime maritime deputy Scott Meyer, Foley asked for hypothetical and scenario-based drawings recreating the collision.
Foley indicated though the renderings that maritime law bound boaters to make a right side, or starboard turn in the case of a potential head-on collision, but the operator of the ski-boat, Dustin Torrez, may not have followed that requirement in his maneuver to avoid the collision.
“Did the boat pulling the ladies pass in front of the cigar boat?” Foley asked.
Meyer testified that when he contacted Torrez and other witnesses at the Conner Estates area on the shore of Lake Tulloch at 7:25 p.m. on the day of the accident, he did not believe that Torrez was under the influence of alcohol.
After the court bailiff took the diagram strapped to an A-stand and placed it near the back of the trial area, Payne turned his head to observe the drawing.
Jones asserted that the drawings were not to scale and did not accurately depict the path of the vessels, and instead reiterated to witness statements indicating to the speed of the boat.
On Friday, James O’Bird, 42, a state prison parolee who testified to fleeing Payne’s vessel after witnessing the accident, said that Payne had been boating at 55 miles per hour.
The maximum speed limit on Lake Tulloch is 45 miles per hour, Meyer said.
Tom McCarthy, a private investigator hired by lawyers representing the Pringle family, also said that in a phone conversation with Payne, he had referred to the accident as a “close call” but denied seeing the inner tube during the collision.
Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Greg Stark, the incident commander for the boating investigation on the day of the incident, sat beside Jones at the prosecution’s table for the duration of the trial and rose to the stand to speak at the end of the day on Monday.
During his testimony, he revealed that during the impoud of Payne’s vehicle, empty beer bottles and a soft cooler filled with beer were discovered on the craft, a portion of the inner tube was located wrapped around the rear propeller.
Stark, like Jones, sought to deemphasize Foley’s repeated stipulation that a coordinated right turn was the only method of avoiding a boating accident.
“You can do whatever you can to avoid that accident,” he said.
Foley, unperturbed, responded, “in the boating world they don't have the rule of law like we do in the vehicle code?”
The trial will continue Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. in Department 3 of the Calaveras County Superior Court.