- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - A jury in Chattanooga has acquitted a towboat pilot of all charges stemming from a collision with a fishing boat that killed two men.

Charles Warren Luetke faced charges of negligent homicide, reckless operation of a boat and failure to render aid in the 2010 incident that killed 52-year-old Richard Wilkey of Soddy-Daisy and 45-year-old Tim Spidle of Elizabethton.

Wilkey’s nephew, David “Chris” Wilkey, survived the June 19, 2010 crash when the 671-foot barge tow struck the 16-foot-long fishing boat on the Tennessee River.

Media reported that jurors deliberated for less than an hour Monday before returning with the verdict.

Prosecutors said Luetke wasn’t paying enough attention while piloting the towboat, noting that he didn’t even realize he had hit a boat until he was called about it after he had traveled about 2 miles downriver.



Defense attorney Sam Hudson said during the trial that the men in the fishing boat had been drinking, and that led to their death.

“The rules and navigation apply to all boaters on the river, not just professional towboat captains and at the end of the day everyone is responsible for abiding by them,” Hudson said.

Lutke said he spent months after the crash second-guessing his decisions that day.

“I’m very sorry that two men lost their lives, but I’m not the one responsible for it and a jury proved that,” Luetke said after the verdict was read. “I still, to this point, don’t know how that boat got where it got without me seeing it get there.”

Although the fishermen had straight-line view of up to eight miles on the river, David Wilkey testified that he didn’t see the towboat and barges until they were 100 yards from his boat. Wilkey said after spotting the towboat, he wasn’t able to start the motor of the fishing boat.

Tests showed Richard Wilkey and Spidle had blood-alcohol levels that were above the legal limit for driving, and a mechanic testified that the boat should never have been taken out onto the water due to the condition of its motor.

Richard Wilkey’s brother, Melvin Wilkey, attended the trial and was disappointed by the outcome.

“It came out like I thought it would - no justice,” Melvin Wilkey said, adding that he thought the towboat pilot should have been held to a higher standard because he was trained and certified and operating such a large craft.

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