Rick Smith, a Camden charter boat captain, is free after a federal judge acquitted him Wednesday of seaman’s manslaughter in connection with the death of a crew member in 2015.

Judge Curtis Gomez granted a motion for judgment of acquittal that had been filed by Smith’s attorneys the day before in U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands. David Cattie and Michael Sheesley argued in the motion that prosecutors had charged Smith under a statute that applies only to vessels engaged in commercial activity.

“This is not an easy decision,” Gomez said. “It is not a light thing to do, but under the circumstance, I think the weight of the law doesn’t support the result the government wants.”

Relatives of the crew member who died, David Pontious, were visibly upset by Gomez’s decision, and Pontious’ mother sobbed as she left the courtroom. The ruling is not subject to appeal and the statute of limitations for a civil lawsuit has expired.

Gomez’s ruling ended the jury trial after two days of emotional testimony.

“Obviously I’m pleased, I think it was the correct result,” Sheesley said. “Rick and myself, we feel bad for the Pontious family – you never want to have somebody lose a life, which occurred – but I just don’t think Rick did anything criminal, I don’t think he did anything civilly wrong. It was just a terrible circumstance.”


Smith, 66, had been charged with negligence contributing to the death of Pontious, a crew member aboard Smith’s sailboat, the Cimarron, in October 2015.

Pontious, 54, of Beaufort, North Carolina, was one of three crew members who were helping Smith sail the 43-foot yawl from Maine to the Virgin Islands, something the captain had done every year for a decade.

According to investigative reports and court documents, Pontious joined the voyage in North Carolina after another crew member departed. Almost immediately, Pontious became seasick and his behavior grew increasingly erratic, culminating in a standoff with Smith while the Cimarron was more than 300 miles from land.

Shortly after he tried to choke Smith and take control of the helm, Pontious jumped overboard.

Smith, a longtime licensed charter captain, wasn’t able to reach the Coast Guard by radio until the next day. A Coast Guard investigation also revealed that he made no attempts to search for Pontious, to throw him a life ring or to turn the boat around.

The captain was questioned about Pontious’ death after the Cimarron arrived in the Virgin Islands, but he wasn’t charged until 2½ years later, in a secret indictment.

Smith was taken into custody in November upon his arrival in port in St. Thomas. He had been under house arrest since he posted bond.

Smith’s trial began Monday with opening statements from federal prosecutors and his attorneys, followed by testimony from government witnesses, including the other crew members, Jacob Pepper and Heather Morningstar. The prosecution continued its case Tuesday while Smith’s attorneys simultaneously tried to get the judge to settle the case.

In the defense motion for judgment of acquittal, attorneys argued that the little-used statute known as seaman’s manslaughter applies only to commercial vessels. Sheesley explained that because there were no paying customers and no commercial cargo when the Cimarron was sailing south in October 2015, it was considered a recreational or pleasure voyage. The motion cited a case from 1974 in which a captain was acquitted in the deaths of two crew members during a voyage from Connecticut to Florida that was deemed non-commercial and therefore not subject to the seaman’s manslaughter statute.


The U.S. Attorney’s Office opposed the motion for acquittal, but the judge ruled in Smith’s favor, ending the case before it went to a jury.

Gretchen Shappert, U.S. attorney for the Virgin Islands, declined in an email Wednesday to comment on the decision.

Sheesley said he expected Gomez to issue a written decision that would be filed with the court and serve as potential case law.

Smith, who faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted, was released from custody after court. Sheesley said he expected his client to return as soon as possible to his sailboat.

Smith did not return a call for comment Wednesday, but he posted one word on his Facebook page shortly after the decision – “FREEDOM,” with eight exclamation points. His daughter, Ashley Rose, who lives in Massachusetts, said in a text message that the family was excited by the decision and relieved the ordeal is over.

Even though he is now officially a free man, Smith’s life has forever been altered by the trial, Sheesley said.

“Emotionally, this is massively taxing. It’s essentially bankrupted him,” Sheesley said. “Like any criminal prosecution, it has a huge effect on somebody’s life, even when they’re found not guilty.”

Pontious’ parents, who attended the trial, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Smith in October, before his arrest. That case was withdrawn before the trial began.

Virgin Islands Daily News Staff Writer Suzanne Carlson contributed to this report from St. Thomas.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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