ST. THOMAS, USVI — Captain Richard “Rick” Smith, 65 was arrested on Nov. 2 in St. John on charges of Seaman’s Manslaughter resulting from an incident the occurred in October 2015, according to a the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Virgin Islands, November 2.
The July 12 indictment alleges that on or about October 25, 2015, Smith was the captain and owner of the S/V Cimarron. Through his inattention, negligence and misconduct, Smith allegedly caused the death of David Pontius, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Smith and Cimarron spend winters in the U.S. Virgin Islands and summers in Camden; the vessel’s home port is Camden.
According to the indictment, Mr. Pontius was a crew member aboard Smith’s boat, the S/V Cimarron, when the 43-foot sailing vessel left North Carolina to return to St. John, where Smith operates a sailing charter business.
During the course of the voyage, Mr. Pontius allegedly became disoriented, climbed over the rail of the boat, and jumped overboard. The indictment alleges that Smith failed to stop to render assistance. As a result, Mr. Pontius died, the attorney’s office stated.
The case is being investigated by Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) Chesapeake Region, United States Coast Guard – Marine Safety Detachment (MSD) St. Thomas and prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Sigrid M. Tejo-Sprotte, according to the news release.
The indictment was filed in the Criminal Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands, district of St. Thomas and St. John in July 2018 and alleges a single count of Seaman’s Manslaughter.
A civil suit alleging four separate causes of action was filed in the same court by Pontius’s family on October 22, 2018.
In a Nov. 14 response to the criminal allegations, Smith’s attorney, Michael L. Sheesley, P.C., who is based in St. Thomas, said the plaintiff had committed suicide and that his death resulted from, “willfully and voluntarily jumping into the ocean.”
On November 17, Smith’s daughter, Ashley, launched fundraising page using the crowd sourcing platform Go Fund Me. The Go Fund Me campaign states the following:
“My father, Captain Richard Smith, is being wrongfully indicted for manslaughter and restrained to an island that is not his home. His life has been completely put on hold. He has no home on this island, no one close, and has been forced now to wear an ankle bracelet ensuring he’s not welcomed in. Until his trial is over, he is not allowed to be near the water, not sail his boat and therefore unable to operate his business as well.”
The text of the fundraising campaign goes on to detail the situation in the words of Smith’s family, imploring donations to support his legal fees which the Go Fund Me narrative estimates will be in excess of $100,000.
As of Monday, November 20, at 10:45 a.m. the campaign had raised $4,118 of its $50,000 stated goal. The funds came from 44 donors over the course of two days.
According to the news release, Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1115, holds ship officers, maritime vessel owners, and maritime corporate management criminally responsible for conduct that results in death on a vessel within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States and within the general admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts. Ship officers—"[e]very captain, engineer, pilot or other person employed . . . on any vessel"—are accountable for "misconduct, negligence or inattention to . . . duties" that results in a loss of life.
If convicted of Seaman’s Manslaughter, Smith faces a maximum sentence of ten years and a $250,000 fine.
Smith declined to comment, citing the advice of his attorney. Captain Smith is presently free on bond, though conditions of release include strict monitoring and restrictions on the hours he must remain inside his residence. He also must stay on St. Thomas.
In the November 2 news release, United States Attorney Gretchen C.F. Shappert reminds the public that an indictment is merely a formal charging document and is not evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless found guilty.