Words of panic pierced a still courtroom Wednesday, as jurors, attorneys and observers listened to a nearly hourlong call to dispatch the night of a fatal Lake Lanier boating accident.
On June 18, 2012, Kristi Berrett was on a pontoon boat with her friends and family when Paul J. Bennett’s fishing boat struck the front of the pontoon, killing two of her friend’s sons, Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13.
“We were just going with our lights on,” Berrett told the dispatch operator. “I guess they didn’t have their lights on.”
Bennett, 45, of Cumming, has been on trial in Hall County Superior Court since Monday, charged with eight counts of homicide by vessel, failure to render aid, reckless operation of a vessel and boating under the influence in the collision.
It was a 51-minute call that “felt like an eternity,” Berrett said on the stand. Dispatch kept Berrett on the phone as authorities struggled to locate the scene of the accident in the Shoal Creek area.
Michael Prince, the father of the two boys killed, also testified, his role as the boat’s operator coming under intense scrutiny by defense attorney Barry Zimmerman.
“In a motorized situation, and a nighttime situation where we’re only seeing lights, it’s hard to determine speeds and if somebody’s in trouble, so you’ve got to go by navigational lights, correct?” Zimmerman asked.
Prince said he did not see Bennett’s boat, and presumed it was therefore not lighted.
“If a boat is missing a light, you could easily be confused as to what it’s going to do,” Prince said, likely referring to what authorities said was a broken green navigational light on Bennett’s boat.
Zimmerman said in opening statements that Bennett had the right of way, which Prince said was made null by the boat’s lack of lighting.
“I thought we just established that any boat in that 112.5-degree angle is a stand-on vessel, making you in the situation the give-way vessel?” Zimmerman asked.
“The stand-on vessel has to be marked, to be a stand-on vessel,” Prince said.
Zimmerman asked what Prince meant by “marked.”
“Marked. Lit — it has to have lights on it,” Prince said. “If it’s properly lit where I can see it ... then I can make a decision and react.”
Prince — who for more than 10 years worked for the family boat rental and sale business, he said — was assertive in explaining his navigation knowledge and actions on that night.
“You make judgements. There’s no speed limits out there, so me going 10 miles an hour was my own choice for safety. His speed limit was whatever he chose to go that night. And in him making that decision to go that speed, he would need to be on alert,” Prince said. “If I was going whatever speed he was going, which was faster than me, you would be more and more alert, the faster you go, would you not agree?”
“Again, I can’t testify, but —” Zimmerman began to say.
“Well, that’s what I say,” Prince said.
Ranger Mark Stephens with the Department of Natural Resources was another of the day’s key witnesses for the state. Stephens was the first law enforcement officer to respond to the scene of the accident.
He described talking to Michael Prince at the pontoon boat when he got to the scene.
“He was crying. He looked at me and said, ‘Will you please help me find my son?’” Stephens said, and later said it was the “hardest thing” in his nine years in law enforcement to tell Prince that “Griffin is probably no longer here.”
Dive teams found Griffin’s body on the ninth day of searching.
Stephens later talked to Bennett early the next morning, around 1:30. The 30-minute initial interview with Bennett, video recorded by Stephens, was played in court.
“I tell you what, man, that boat came out of nowhere,” a distraught Bennett told Stephens.
Stephens said Bennett’s erratic emotions were indicative he was drunk.
“It’s a classic example of an impaired person. It’s a poster child,” Stephens said. “The highs are high and the lows are low. They’re happy one minute and they’re crying the next, and he exhibited that.”
Bennett said he had a “couple of swigs” of alcohol after the accident. Prior, he said, he had a tall vodka tonic at a tavern, which he did not finish, and a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.
He insisted in the video that he did not operate his boat impaired on the lake.
Stephens administered a field sobriety test. Bennett failed the tests, and he was placed under arrest. Defense attorneys have disputed the test, saying it was not properly administered.
Bennett registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 on a breath test device, administered by Stephens at DNR’s Aqualand Marina testing site.
Presentation of evidence from the state continues on Thursday morning. The trial is expected to run through this week and likely the beginning of next week, attorneys said.