Sharp Turn in Investigation of NYC Boat Crash
For all the apparent mayhem surrounding a late night boating accident that took the lives of two people in Queens on Thursday, the authorities had a simple explanation: a drunken teenager had turned his father's boat around in fast circles for fun and then slammed it into another one.
But in the days since, the official account of what happened that night has itself changed course. On Monday, the authorities said Robert Arnold, the 18-year-old initially charged with operating a boat while intoxicated, actually had a blood-alcohol level of 0.01, well below the legal limit.
Yesterday, officials said that four bags of cocaine were found in a knapsack in the smashed remains of the other boat involved in the crash. They also said that boat's operator, John Kondogianis, 35, who died as a result of the crash, had been arrested twice since 1999 on misdemeanor drug possession charges and was sentenced on April 2 to three years' probation. Additionally, the police and prosecutors yesterday were investigating whether the running lights on Mr. Kondogianis's 19-foot Bayliner were turned off at the time of the crash, as Mr. Arnold's passengers have told the authorities.
Now investigators are vigorously reinterviewing all the witnesses and individuals involved in the crash, as well as the Harbor Unit police officers who responded to it. The authorities are reviewing all the statements gathered to determine the actions both boaters took and the cause of the crash, a senior police official said.
"The plot thickens," a law enforcement official said yesterday when asked about the course of the investigation. The official added: "It is not going where everybody thought it was going to go. It is fascinating and sad."
Put another way by Barry Kamins, a defense lawyer who served as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney's office from 1969 to 1973 and who is the former president of the Brooklyn Bar Association: "In some of these cases, things are not exactly what they seem initially, and individuals who appear to be responsible may not be as facts develop.
"Defendants are sometimes not as culpable as initial reports make out, and victims are not always totally blameless," Mr. Kamins added. "Sometimes, the truth in a case lies somewhere in the middle, between black and white."
Mr. Arnold's lawyer, Steven R. Barnwell, denies the case is foggy. "There is something in this story that has not changed," he said yesterday. "Mr. Arnold committed no criminal act. That has been the position of the family since Day 1. That has not changed."
Mr. Arnold, a lifeguard who was a National Honor Society student at St. Mary's High School in Manhasset and who plans to attend the State University of New York at New Paltz, declined to be interviewed yesterday, Mr. Barnwell said, as did Mr. Arnold's parents.
In the crash, Mr. Kondogianis was hurled overboard, as was George Lawrence, 17, one of five teenagers who were passengers on Mr. Arnold's 18-foot fiberglass Sea Ray. The bodies of both men, who had been missing since the 9:50 p.m. crash, were discovered floating in the shallow waters nearby on Sunday, the authorities said.
Originally, Mr. Arnold, of Douglas Manor, was accused of drinking and roughhousing on the dark waterway. He was charged with three counts of boating while intoxicated because his breath smelled like alcohol and because he refused to take a Breathalyzer test at the scene, the authorities said.
The results of a blood test ordered by a judge — three and a half hours after the crash — showed that Mr. Arnold was clearly not drunk at the time of the crash, law enforcement officials said Monday. A test for drugs is still pending, and if the results come back negative, the three original charges will probably be dismissed, officials said yesterday.
Officials are also awaiting the results of toxicology tests done on Mr. Kondogianis, who, according to Ellen S. Borakove, a spokeswoman for the city medical examiner's office, died of blunt impact injuries to the head and neck after submersion in water.
An investigation of other factors in the crash, like the speed of the boats and the conditions on the water, is still under way. If prosecutors find evidence to support charges that Mr. Arnold acted with criminal negligence or criminal recklessness, he could face other charges, including criminally negligent homicide or reckless manslaughter, law enforcement officials said.
"The investigation is continuing, and no conclusions have been drawn," Patrick Clark, a spokesman for the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said yesterday.
The substance found on Mr. Kondogianis's boat — a development first reported Monday by WNBC-TV — was identified yesterday through laboratory tests as cocaine, officials said. Still, many questions remain.
According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Arnold told the police that he was doing 360-degree turns with his Sea Ray and that his bow struck the right front side of the Bayliner, which he did not see. But Mr. Barnwell, who said he was confident that his client was not using drugs that night, raised questions about whether Mr. Arnold's statement would ever be introduced as evidence.
"The officer said that Robert said he was doing 360's," Mr. Barnwell said. "Was that when he was assisting the police? Before the police got there? When he was looking for the bodies? Or was that the other boat? There is also the issue of whether he even said it. These are all things to be determined at a hearing."