ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Charter captain Richard Smith’s trial on seaman’s manslaughter began Monday with his defense attorneys serving the victim’s family subpoenas, a move the prosecution alleged was designed to keep them out of the courtroom.

Smith, 65, owner of the sailing vessel Cimarron, was charged Nov. 2 in connection with the Oct. 25, 2015, drowning of crew member David Pontious, 54, of Beaufort, North Carolina. Pontious was helping transport the 43-foot yawl to St. John for the winter charter season after it had spent the summer in Camden, Maine.

While a U.S. Coast Guard investigator found that Pontious jumped overboard in the midst of a violent psychotic episode and Smith was not at fault, federal prosecutors argue that Smith was negligent in not seeking medical attention for Pontious before he jumped overboard and for not doing more to try to rescue him after he did.

Pontious’ sister and parents, Frank and Marilyn Pontious, traveled to the territory for the trial, and were issued subpoenas by defense attorneys when they walked into court Monday.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Daniel Huston and Sigrid Tejo-Sprotte argued that defense attorneys Michael Sheesley and David Cattie issued the last-minute subpoenas in an attempt to keep Pontious’ family members out of the courtroom for the duration of the trial. Tejo-Sprotte also cited federal law requiring that victims in criminal trials be allowed to be present in court.

Sheesley and Cattie said the Pontious family’s testimony is necessary, and they intend to question them about Pontious’ mental state before leaving North Carolina.

U.S. District Judge Curtis Gomez agreed that federal law requires witnesses to be sequestered so they are not influenced by other witnesses’ testimony, and ordered the Pontious family to leave the courtroom for the remainder of Monday’s proceedings, which began at around 2:30 p.m. and ended shortly before 7 p.m.

Gomez ordered defense attorneys to file an ex parte statement justifying the continued sequestration by 10 p.m. Monday, and said he would further consider the issue Tuesday.

After jury selection, attorneys made their opening statements, beginning with Huston, who calmly gave a straightforward account of what he said led to Pontious’s death – a lack of action by Smith.

“This case is about a man who needed help” and Smith “failed to provide that help at every opportunity,” Huston said.

Smith had recruited three volunteers to help him sail the Cimarron from Camden to St. John – Jacob Pepper, Heather Morningstar and Candice Martin. Martin left the vessel in North Carolina and arranged for Pontious to take her place for the remainder of the journey because of a prior commitment, and Smith and the other two crew members met Pontious for the first time when he boarded the ship.

Pontious immediately became seasick when the ship departed North Carolina on Thursday, Oct. 22, and was so ill and dehydrated he started to hallucinate and grew progressively worse Friday into Saturday, Huston said.

Late Saturday evening, Huston said Pontious hallucinated a door in the sky – he apparently believed he had been transported to a fake world, and the door would lead him back to reality – and ordered Smith to take him to it.

Smith “responded aggressively, something to the effect of ‘touch my equipment again and I’ll slit your throat,'” Huston said. “After that verbal threat is made, the situation escalates.”

Pontious announced to Smith and the other crew that “if you won’t take me there, I’ll go myself,” and stepped off the boat at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning – according to testimony by Pepper – never to be seen again, Huston said.

Smith did not stop the Cimarron and “did not even throw a life ring,” Huston said.

He acknowledged that Smith made “some effort to make radio contact, belatedly,” and did not officially report Smith missing until about 8 a.m. the following day when he told the ship’s weather router via single sideband radio that Pontious had gone overboard more than 24 hours earlier.

Smith caused Pontious’s death through negligence, Huston said, and “failed to make any effort whatsoever” after he went overboard.

Sheesley shot back in a fiery opening statement that “I’m a little bit upset because I don’t believe that the government has given you the whole story.”

Smith is an experienced sailor who has been traveling around the Caribbean since the 1970s, and has made 70 trips to and from Maine and St. John over the decades, Sheesley said.

Pontious was an experienced sailor and sailing instructor, and Smith and other crew members attempted to help Pontious through his bout of seasickness and provide what aid they could while he was incapacitated by nausea, he argued.

Sheesley highlighted apparent improvements in Pontious’ condition in the hours before he stepped overboard – including that he ate dinner and stood a two-hour watch from 6-8 p.m. – and said crew members were hopeful he would stop hallucinating and return to normal.

Instead, Pontious made distressing statements to other crew members indicating he believed he’d been kidnapped and was unsure where he was, and had apparently been taking medication for medical conditions he did not disclose to Smith, Sheesley said.

“We don’t know what else David Pontious was on, we don’t know if he was on illegal drugs,” Sheesley said.

When Pontious grabbed the ship’s only spotlight in an effort to search for the portal in the sky, Smith wrestled him for it and said if he touched another piece of equipment “I’ll slit your throat you son of a bitch,” Sheesley said.

Smith was angry and disoriented by Pontious’ unusual behavior, and was worried for the safety of Pepper and Morningstar, as all three were physically smaller than Pontious, who was more than 6 feet tall and weighed about 260 pounds, Sheesley said.

“Imagine, midnight in the middle of the ocean,” Sheesley said. “You can’t get away from him.”

Pepper took the stand Monday and described the events leading up to Pontious’ death, at times struggling to recall specific statements or details three years after the incident.

Pepper testified that Smith plotted the coordinates where Pontious went overboard and attempted to make mayday calls a few minutes later, but the ship was approximately 300 miles offshore, too far for either the VHF or single sideband radio to make a successful communication.

The call Monday morning to a weather router resulted in the U.S. Coast Guard flying a C-130 over the ship to enable radio communication with Smith, who continued sailing to St. John, Pepper said.

Smith did not throw a life ring overboard or activate an emergency beacon when Pontious went overboard, Pepper testified, but after the plane flew off to search for Pontious’s body, Smith threw a ring into the water and told the remaining crew, “can’t say I didn’t throw a life ring.”

Pepper will return to the stand Tuesday to continue giving testimony.

Read the story in the Virgin Islands Daily News.

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