The mother of two boys killed in a Lake Lanier boating accident testified Tuesday in the trial of the man accused in the incident.
Tara Prince was on a pontoon boat with her family and friends June 18, 2012, when Paul J. Bennett’s fishing boat struck the front of the pontoon, instantly killing Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13.
“I searched the wreckage; I was doing a head count. That’s when I first knew Griffin was missing,” Prince said, her voice cracking for the first time in several minutes of testimony. It took authorities nine days to find Griffin’s body in the depths of Lanier.
Bennett, 45, of Cumming is 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.
His attorneys said the wreck was a tragic accident. Prosecutors said it was the criminal result of Bennett’s operating a boat while intoxicated.
The state began its presentation of evidence by calling to the stand some of the 13 persons, four adults and nine kids, who were on the boat that night. In addition to Prince, Kristi Berrett testified, along with her son, then 18, her daughter and her daughter’s friend, both 13 at the time of the incident.
Those witnesses described a similar scene of panic and chaos in the aftermath of the collision.
“There was a loud, scary noise. I didn’t see what happened,” Kristi Berrett said. “Tara and I looked to each other and said, ‘What was that?’”
Prince said she heard “an enormously loud crashing sound and then the boat was “dead in the water.”
“I saw stuff flying over my head and landing in the water behind us,” Prince said, which appeared to be debris from the wreckage and cushions from the boat.
Berrett said they ducked under the collapsed canopy to the front of the boat as “panic” and “confusion” set in when they saw the bench wrenched away where five kids had been sitting.
Prince said she realized her younger son’s injuries were too severe, and he was beyond saving.
Prince said she could hear Bennett crying, and asked him “What are you crying about? You killed my family,” and heard him saying “What have I done?”
Multiple witnesses testified they had heard that same statement, said repeatedly by Bennett.
Attorneys on both sides have tried to establish the particulars of the night — the visibility of the pontoon boat based on its lighting and the time of day, how fast it was moving and the loudness of the boat’s atmosphere.
District Attorney Lee Darragh, in his questioning, asked witnesses if the pontoon boat had been “shooting across the water,” to which each said it had been traveling slowly.
Kyler Berrett, 20, said he “wanted the boat to go faster” to get home to his girlfriend, but that it was going at a low speed, causing little wake.
Moments before the impact, Kyler Berrett said he remembered hearing the motor of Bennett’s boat, and said he ducked down in the seconds he had to react.
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s no chance of us getting out of this,’” he said.
He said he saw Bennett’s boat driving around in circles, the passenger in “a little bit of a panic” and in more panic when he realized the boys had been killed.
“He screamed in panic after (Tara) had said that,” he said.
Bennett’s attorney Barry Zimmerman in opening statements said Bennett had tried to help, and left the scene to address his boating companion’s diabetic emergency, but that he “wasn’t through helping.”
When he came back, Zimmerman said, everyone was gone. During his cross-examination of the pontoon boat witnesses, Zimmerman tried to establish how far and how quickly the boat had drifted from the scene of the accident.
Testimony continues this morning in the trial, which is expected to run through this week and possibly the beginning of next week, attorneys said.
Jurors will hear testimony from several other state’s witnesses, including the pontoon boat’s operator and victims’ father, Michael Prince, who is expected to be a key witness.