Camden captain talks about ordeal following arrest in Virgin Islands

By Stephen Betts | Nov 26, 2018
Photo by: Richard Smith family

St. Thomas, Virgin Islands — A sailing vessel captain who splits his year between Camden and the Virgin Islands said he is stunned by the federal government's pursuit of criminal charges against him after a crew member jumped off the ship during a psychotic break more than three years ago.

"This has been so traumatic. I'm not a criminal," said Capt. Richard Smith in a telephone interview Monday, Nov. 26.

A federal grand jury in the Virgin Islands indicted Smith July 12 for seaman's manslaughter. The indictment was sealed and Smith was arrested Nov. 2, when he arrived in the Virgin Islands.

Smith said his sailing vessel, Cimarron, has been impounded by the federal government and he has been under house arrest since earlier this month.

The incident occurred in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, 2015, when a new crew member, David Pontius, jumped overboard after attacking Smith, according to a report by the Coast Guard. The Cimarron was 400 miles off the coast of North Carolina and 400 miles from Bermuda.

The 66-year-old captain has lived in Maine all his life, and 45 of those years in Camden. He operates the Cimarron as a charter boat during the summer in Camden, and in the winters in the Virgin Islands. When he comes to Camden, he lives aboard his ship, Smith said.

He also operated many years ago an English pilot cutter, Corineus, out of Camden while also operating the Cimarron. Before that, he operated the fishing vessel Dirigo, which also was used for day trips.

He said he still has family members who live in Knox County and two children. A daughter started an online crowdfunding campaign to help with his legal expenses.

Smith said he has cooperated with the federal government in its investigation of the incident. He was interviewed by the Coast Guard after the Cimarron arrived in the Virgin Islands and he agreed to an interview in December 2015 with FBI agents.

He was offered an opportunity in February 2017 to testify before a grand jury in the Virgin Islands, but on the advice of his attorney, declined. A month later, Smith and his attorney met with a U.S. attorney and an FBI agent, at which time he was encouraged by the federal government to plead guilty to seaman's manslaughter before a grand jury issued an indictment. Smith declined.

Smith said the next contact he had with the federal investigators was when he was arrested.

"They were waiting on the beach for me when I arrived on the island [Nov. 2, 2018]," Smith said.

Smith said he was able to get a copy of the Coast Guard investigative report following his arrest after trying for three years to get the information.

He said the Coast Guard report shows that he was not at fault.

"I was physically, violently attacked," Smith said.

He said he does not know why the federal agents are "going after blood" in this case.

"I've been at sea at 45 years. I've seen a lot. I've experienced 40-foot seas, but I've never experienced something like what happened [on that October 2015 trip]," Smith said.

He said he tried to contact nearby vessels by radio, but because of their distance from shore, no one could be reached. He said it took more than a day to reach anyone by radio.

The Coast Guard report stated that "Once David jumped off the vessel and the Captain saw him sink into the water and not come back up, he was relieved, because at this point David was not a threat to the crew. Hindsight is 20/20 and when not placed in a situation like that, one may ask why didn't you search? Why didn't you throw a life ring and an EPIRB out? The Captain saw him go under and not resurface, and that is why he did not turn back and search, plus he was scared to death that if he [Pontius] got back on the vessel, he would throw other people overboard."

"I asked the Captain face to face about why he did not throw the EPIRB out with a life ring, and he told me that he never even thought about that with all the fear and terror that was going through his mind," the report states.

The Coast Guard report also recalls the terror experienced by the other crew members from Pontius' behavior and attack against Smith.

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