Federal prosecutors have begun to lay out their case against a Camden sailboat captain who awaits trial for seaman’s manslaughter in connection with the death of a crew member three years ago.

Rick Smith, 66, was sailing his 43-foot yawl, Cimarron, from Maine to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands in October 2015 when a crew member, David Pontious, jumped overboard when the vessel was about 300 miles offshore. Pontious, 54, had been seasick for three days, had grown increasingly paranoid and had even attacked Smith minutes before jumping.

Two and a half years later, Smith was charged under a little-used maritime law for negligence that contributed to Pontious’ death.

According to recently filed court documents, the prosecution plans to call at least two maritime experts who will testify that Smith should have intervened long before Pontious jumped from Smith’s sailboat.

“I would say that there were a number of failures on the captain’s part that lead up to the situation in the first place,” wrote Capt. Glen Allen, a government witness and U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain for more than 30 years.

Allen cited a lack of long-range communication equipment that could have allowed Smith to contact authorities sooner and said Smith did not do enough to vet Pontious before allowing him on board.

He also said that Smith should have altered course to the nearest safe harbor once it was clear Pontious was suffering.

“I find the action of the captain after the victim jumped overboard totally unacceptable,” Allen wrote. “It would seem to me that you would make some attempt at saving this life even if I thought it would do no good — every person deserves at least a fighting chance.”

Another witness, Mario Vittone, a 22-year U.S. Navy and Coast Guard veteran who has investigated maritime accidents, also plans to testify that Smith did not do enough to ensure Pontious’ safety while on board and didn’t do enough to try and save him when he plunged into the water.

“Smith’s long experience as a licensed captain and operator of an uninspected passenger vessel should have indicated to him that he had an emergency that required action and that the only reasonable action would require him to deviate from his sailing plan … and make contact with authorities,” Vittone wrote.

Vittone also said Smith failed to follow protocol after Pontious went over.

“Smith’s complete lack of effective action, including not throwing flotation, not making a single search attempt and not taking effective measures to communicate the distress for over 32 hours was akin to issuing a death sentence on Pontious,” the expert wrote.

Smith’s attorney, Michael Sheesley, has presented at least one rebuttal witness, Capt. Stephen Richter, who arrived at a different conclusion. Richter is an experienced Coast Guard licensed captain and has served as an expert witness for both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“It is my opinion that any action or inactions of Captain Smith, and the crew of the S.V. Cimarron were not responsible for the loss of Mr. Pontious on Oct. 25, 2015,” Richter wrote. “I believe the responsibility for the loss of Mr. Pontious is solely the fault of Mr. Pontious himself.”

Richter also wrote that it was clear to him that Smith feared for his safety and the safety of two other crew members and that Pontious was dangerous.

Prosecutors also plan to call on Pontious’ doctor, Clark Trask, to testify. According to an investigative report by the Coast Guard, Pontious had multiple health problems and was taking several medications prior to and during the voyage. Trask, in written testimony filed with the court, said the descriptions of Pontious’ behavior were “quite the opposite of the David Pontious I knew.”

“He was always a kind, thoughtful, peaceful, quiet and gentle type of person,” Trask wrote. “It would have been a terrifying transformation from that stable person to the clearly sick individual that walked off the boat hallucinating and distressed.”

Smith’s trial has been scheduled for January in St. Thomas. He has been on house arrest since his release from jail last month and cannot leave the Virgin Islands.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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