Reports offer details in Camden woman's death

By Stephen Betts | Aug 04, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts Jonathan Roberts, left, and his attorney, Walter McKee, listen as Justice Daniel Billings accepts the plea agreement July 29 in Lincoln County Superior Court in Wiscasset.

The driver of a motorboat that struck and killed Kristen McKellar last year told state investigators he estimated his speed at between 25 and 30 miles per hour and that he could have been as close as 150 feet from shore when the fatal collision occurred.

That is some of the information included in the investigative records compiled by the Maine Warden Service following the Aug. 2, 2018, fatality on Damariscotta Lake in Jefferson. The records were provided to The Courier-Gazette through a freedom of information request.

The operator of the motorboat, Jonathan D. Roberts, 44, of Waban, Mass., pleaded guilty July 29 in Lincoln County Superior Court in Wiscasset to reckless operation of a watercraft. If he refrains from further criminal activity and performs 100 hours of community service, the charge will be dropped. He will be fined $400 for the civil offense of operating a boat at a greater than headway speed within a water safety zone.

Charges of manslaughter and operating at an imprudent speed were dismissed by the District Attorney's Office.

The plea agreement was reached earlier this year following a closed-door conference between the prosecution, defense and Justice Paul Fritzsche. Justice Daniel Billings accepted the agreement at the July 29 hearing.

The family of the 32-year-old McKellar, a Camden resident, decried the sentence, agreement saying justice was not served.

"This is the legal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders," the victim's sister, Alison McKellar, said at the hearing. "This felt like the 'Twilight Zone'."

District Attorney Natasha Irving said the agreement took into account Roberts’ responsibility for the tragedy, but also the state’s conclusion that the likelihood of obtaining a conviction at trial was extremely low.

"Neither the District Attorney’s Office nor the McKellar family are satisfied with the outcome, but the state is convinced this result is the best that could be obtained, based on the facts and the existing laws," Irving said.

Irving said she is working with the Warden Service and representatives in the Maine Legislature to propose new laws that will promote safer boating, avoid another tragedy on Maine’s waters and hold accountable those whose actions make our waters unsafe.

The investigative records from the Warden Service provide a timeline and details of what occurred on the evening of the fatality.

The reports show that the collision occurred at about 8:45 p.m.

Roberts was driving a 2002 Silverline stern-drive boat. He told a warden, who is not identified in the paperwork, that it was getting dark and hard to see immediately prior to the collision. The stern and bow lights were on, he said.

The operator said he guessed he was 150 to 300 feet from shore and was going 25 to 30 miles per hour. He also said the gauge was not right on the old boat, but he was going at "half-speed on full plane."

Roberts said he spotted a black dot in the distance and turned to the right to avoid it. He said as he got closer he realized it was a person. He said he was pulling up on the throttle when he saw McKellar's head right in front of the boat.

McKellar was swimming with a friend who was wearing a dark wetsuit. They were about 15 to 20 feet apart at the time she was struck.

There were four passengers on Roberts' boat -- three children and his brother -- in addition to Roberts himself. The Warden Service's report states that the children on the boat said they saw both people in the water prior to the collision.

Roberts immediately turned the boat around and McKellar's male friend was holding her in the water. McKellar was conscious and breathing at the time.

McKellar had suffered severe cuts to her legs and abdomen and once she was pulled into the boat, Roberts took off his shirt and tried to tie it around her leg and abdomen in an effort to stem the bleeding.

He noticed that McKellar had stopped breathing and began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

Roberts had turned the boat off when he turned back to assist McKellar and her friend. Once she was on board, however, he could not get the boat started again. A kayaker arrived and helped pull the boat to shore, along with McKellar's friend, who swam in the water while pushing the boat shore, a process that took an estimated one to two minutes.

Emergency medical personnel were on the dock when the boat arrived.

The records state that Roberts told the wardens he did not believe he was going too fast for how close to shore he was.

The Warden Service took Roberts' boat out on the same lake Aug. 20 and drove it at varying speeds. The speedometer on the boat did not work, but the rpm gauge, showing the revolutions per minute of the engine's crankshaft, was working. The speed at which Roberts said he was traveling, based on the RPMs he reported at the time of the crash, was estimated at 17 to 18 miles per hour.

The boat could reach 36 miles per hour at full throttle, the test drive showed.

Roberts stated during another part of an interview following the fatality that he estimated his speed at 30 miles per hour.

The warden questioning Roberts in a followup interview Aug. 18 told the Massachusetts man that safely driving a boat means to use headway speed after dark, whether close to shore or in the middle of the lake. Headway speed is the minimal speed to maintain steering.

Roberts acknowledged that he had looked up the meaning of "headway speed" after the crash and realized it was within 200 feet of shore, but he had previously believed it was only for swimming areas and beaches.

During the initial interview on the night after the crash, a warden said he smelled a little booze on Roberts, but did not believe he was intoxicated. Roberts said he had had three beers before dinner. A blood alcohol test two hours after the collision found a level of 0.01. The threshold for operating a motor vehicle under the influence is reached when the blood alcohol level is 0.08 -- eight times more than Roberts' level.

An interview with McKellar's friend shows that both he and McKellar had been waving their arms and screaming to get the attention of the approaching boat. McKellar took off a neon yellow flipper and was waving it, the friend said. The two were about 15 to 20 feet apart when she was struck, he said.

A kayaker arrived and, along with his swimming, they managed to get the boat to shore within a minute or two.

Roberts repeatedly apologized and said he knew when he struck something that it was not a log or a loon. Another report from Lincoln County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Matthew Day stated that Roberts was saying a prayer when he got back on shore and was visibly shaken.

McKellar's friend estimated that they were about 150 feet from shore when she was struck.

An autopsy by the Maine Medical Examiner determined that McKellar died from severe loss of blood.

McKellar's flipper was recovered 420 feet from shore Aug. 31.

The sun set at 8:01 p.m. on that day, with twilight ending at 8:34 p.m.

The state law on reckless operation of a watercraft states, "A person may not operate any of the following in such a way as to recklessly create a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person:"

State law also states that manslaughter occurs when someone "Recklessly, or with criminal negligence, causes the death of another human being." Criminal negligence is defined as "a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable and prudent person would observe in the same situation."

A grand jury in Lincoln County indicted Roberts Jan. 8, meaning it felt there was probable cause for the charges to be levied. The indictment followed a presentation of evidence by only the prosecution in the closed-door process.

Irving said Sunday that she was sworn in as district attorney Jan. 1 and had not been briefed when the case was presented to the grand jury the following week. She said she would not have sought an indictment for the manslaughter charge based on the evidence.

The region's chief prosecutor said human estimation of distance from shore is terribly unreliable. She said the wardens concluded that the location where the flipper was found was likely where McKellar was struck. She said the warden service tested the buoyancy of the flipper.

Irving said the law change she is seeking is to require headway speed after dark on all inland bodies of water.

Alison McKellar said Sunday the family is considering filing a civil lawsuit against Roberts. She said the district attorney told the family this was an appropriate way to handle the matter.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Deborah Clarisse Morrison | Aug 08, 2019 19:13

I feel terrible for both parties. Those children will never forget trying to save her, or will he. The swimmers were quite a ways from the shoreline and it was just at dusk making visibility hard. Any one who has been on the water knows how tough that can be. I love to swim at night but it has it's perils. Hopefully this will never happen again. My sympathies for both families.






Posted by: Ian Emmott | Aug 04, 2019 18:27

Swimming at night that far off shore is pretty dicey... just saying.  No doubt Mr Roberts will live with this every day for the rest of his life, and likely his passengers as well. Seems like Ms Irving sees that as well considering her comment.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Aug 04, 2019 15:11

Sad! I feel sorrow for the families involved. Swimming and boating at night shares responsibilities to look out for swimmers and to operate farther from shore than swimmers. Common sense.

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