Harrison, Maine — October 1, 2008 — The trial of a man who was at the helm of a high-powered boat that slashed across a smaller motorboat, killing two people, has left residents of this small lakeside town quietly divided and anxiously waiting for the nightmarish tale to play out.
The tragic events of Aug. 11, 2007, were replayed in court during the past two weeks before a jury decided that Robert LaPointe of Medway, Mass., was guilty of two counts of aggravated operating under the influence. Jurors, however, were unable to agree on a verdict on two manslaughter counts, leaving the possibility LaPointe could be tried again.
“I don’t believe [the jurors] finished their work,” Bob Dann, a retiree and resident of this town of about 2,600 said as he trimmed the bushes by his lakeside cottage. “It’s my belief that the man should have been found guilty of more than drinking.”
Misty Sulloway of Bridgton, which also abuts Long Lake, said the issue boils down to respect for others. “Traveling at that speed while you’re drinking is very irresponsible,” she said.
Some see another side to the accident that took the lives of Terry Raye Trott, 55, of nearby Naples, and 44-year-old Suzanne Groetzinger of Berwick, whose 14-foot vessel was struck by LaPointe’s boat No Patience.
“I feel bad for both sides,” said Marsha Swecker, who works at a Bridgton chiropractic office. She said some clients who come in think LaPointe had no chance in court in his highly publicized case.
“We’ve all done the same thing, drinking while out in our boat,” said Wayne DiStefano, an auto repairman in Bridgton. “He should have said, ‘OK, I’m drinking. I should be a little more careful.’ ”
Many local residents are reluctant to even speak about the case, but they acknowledge that just about everybody’s talking about it. Troubling as the case is, a national group that keeps track of statistics says boaters are being safer than ever.
“The town seems to be divided on the whole thing,” said Harrison Town Manager Bradley Plante, adding that some want to see a stiff sentence for LaPointe while others point to testimony that the 14-foot boat that was struck didn’t have its navigational lights on.
That shouldn’t matter, said a Bridgton mechanic who keeps a boat on Long Lake and says he knows the waterway “like the back of my hand.”
“When you’re driving at night, you have to go wake speed at best,” said the mechanic, who didn’t want his name used.
LaPointe had testified during his trial in Cumberland County Superior Court that he was operating at 30 miles per hour, and had been pressured by an investigator into saying he was traveling at “maybe 40, maybe 45” in his boat equipped with twin 435-horsepower engines that deliver a top speed of 80 miles per hour.
LaPointe’s speedboat was going fast enough the night of the accident to bring it to rest more than 100 feet ashore.
It wasn’t the first accident of that kind on Long Lake, said Harbor Master Gary Pendexter, who recalled one a year before in which a kayak was struck at night by a motorboat and cut in half. The kayakers lived but the driver of the power boat left the scene, then turned himself in to authorities the following day, he said.
Pendexter said more powerful boats are becoming a reality on Long Lake, as lakefront property values rise and affluent residents bring in expensive boats.
“There’s bigger and faster boats that have been here,” said Pendexter, who advocates a speed limit on the lake. “We see a lot of cigarette boats and yacht-type boats we haven’t had in the past.” The problem is, he says, is that state game wardens are spread too thin to enforce speed limits.
The idea of more regulations rankles some of the Maine lake’s users, who say no law can force boaters to exercise common sense. The National Safe Boating Council says it’s hard to prevent accidents that result from bad judgment.