QUEENSBURY — Draped in black-and-white-striped prison garb, Alexander West told the family of 8-year-old Charlotte McCue that he regrets being involved in the crash that killed her — despite pleading not guilty.
“I am haunted every day by it, knowing that I was part of something that took away a little girl,” the 25-year-old West said Monday, addressing his comments to Warren County Judge John Hall. “I know nothing I say will make a difference, but I just want you and the McCue family to know that I pray for all of us every day.”
The Lake George man was then sentenced to five to 15 years in state prison for second-degree manslaughter in the death of Charlotte McCue, of Carlsbad, California, who was vacationing on Lake George with her family the night of July 25 when West drove his powerboat into their antique Gar Wood.
It was not the maximum sentence that many who packed the courtroom, including West’s attorney, Cheryl Coleman, were expecting. Last month, following three weeks of trial and two days of deliberations, a Warren County jury convicted West of manslaughter, second-degree vehicular assault for causing serious injury to Charlotte’s mother, Courtney McCue, and six other charges.
Before imposing the sentence, Hall noted that West had no prior convictions and said that “certainly there has been no finding of any intentional conduct.” He could have added 2 1/3 to 7 years for leaving the scene of the crash, the only charge whose term could have run consecutively to the manslaughter sentence — according to District Attorney Kate Hogan — but chose to have it run concurrently.
Hall seemed to be under the impression, however, that he couldn’t. Hogan could not be reached for comment after the sentencing.
“It appears to be both appropriate and supported by the law, and required by the law, that the defendant be sentenced to concurrent time as the element of operation of the vessel was a material element both of the manslaughter, assault and homicide [charges] as well as leaving the scene of an accident,” Hall said.
Coleman said she and West “came in expecting the worst” — that the sentences for manslaughter and leaving the scene would be stacked.
“It’s always been my understanding, in my experience, that you can, but he didn’t,” she said, “so we’re grateful.”
The shorter sentence could mean West is placed in a lower-security state prison facility than if he had been given 7 1/3 to 22 years, Coleman said.
“When you’re expecting to get shot in the face and you only get shot in the chest, you’re somewhat grateful.”
Before the trial, West had been offered a plea deal of vehicular assault and leaving the scene of the crash, charges which were expected to yield consecutive sentences of 2 1/3 to 7 years for a total of 4 2/3 to 14 years.
“It’s really kind of the same,” Coleman said.
The jury found that West spent the day partying at Log Bay Day before driving his boat under the influence of alcohol, recklessly causing the crash before he fled and hid. West, joined in his boat by four others, was driving back from The Huddle in Bolton Landing, where witnesses testified that he drank two Moscow mules.
Charlotte’s grandfather was driving the 1928 Gar Wood, and Charlotte had fallen asleep with her head on her mother’s lap at the time of the crash. The family was on its way home from what Courtney McCue called an after-dinner “putt putt cruise.”
She said Monday that the injuries she sustained in the crash are a constant reminder, both physically and emotionally, of her daughter’s death.
“When Charlotte passed away that night, a part of me died as well,” she said. “I question why she was killed and I’m still here. We were sitting inches from each other. I would give anything to have her back, even my own life.”
She said “no amount of therapy” can reverse the damage done to Courtney’s siblings, 10-year-old Madison and 4-year-old Cooper, who were on the boat that night.
“Madison and Cooper have the burden of being in the presence of a dead body — their very own sister,” she said.
Forty years of memories on the lake have been replaced with grief and sadness because of West’s actions and “we will never feel safe on a boat again,” she added.
During the trial, jurors were shown pictures of Charlotte’s body covered by a blanket in the Gar Wood, McCue said, and her name was mentioned “over and over by people who have never met her.”
“She never had a voice, and no one really discussed who she really was, besides an 8-year-old girl who lost her life,” she said. “Let me tell you, she was a spectacular, freckly faced firecracker with a scratchy voice. She was a loving sister, an amazing daughter, a caring granddaughter and a really fun friend.”
She was also fearless and determined to be the best at anything she set her mind to, whether it be gymnastics, reading or surfing, her mother said before asking Hall to impose the maximum sentence.
“I wish to have Charlotte back in my arms, but since that’s not possible, the man who stole her life should be punished forever.”
She added, “I’m sure the West family’s lives have been ruined as well, I just wish you would own up to it.”
Hall then told Courtney McCue he recalled seeing a photograph of Charlotte jumping into water from a high height.
“I have a feeling that she’s not the only determined and fearless person in the family,” he said. “I appreciate you being here.”
Also speaking before the sentencing were Charlotte’s grandparents, Christine and Robert Knarr, although Robert Knarr only spoke on behalf of Charlotte’s father, Eric McCue.
“Eric is not here because he prefers to avoid media attention right now, and the real reason and more importantly is he just can’t bear to be in the same room with the man who took his [daughter’s life],” Robert Knarr said.
In his written statement, McCue called West “a coward, who when put to the test will choose himself over his fellow man.”
“He killed my daughter,” Knarr read from the statement. “He maimed my wife. He scarred my children and has emotionally crippled countless members of my extended family.”
Christine Knarr spoke in court and called her granddaughter a “sparkle.”
“When Alexander West walks out of prison, whenever that day may be, our Charlotte will still be dead,” she said.
Hogan, the district attorney, asked the judge to consider a statement from Charlotte’s older sister, Madison.
“I wanted to see Charlotte grow up all the way,” Hogan read. “I wanted to do sisterly things with her.”
Hogan also reminded Hall of the toxicology report showing cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy in West’s system after the crash — evidence prosecutors withdrew, citing an improper warrant.
She implored Hall to consider surveillance footage of the crash, which showed West’s boat catching up to the Gar Wood and not slowing down before impact.
“We don’t often have video of the crime, and that’s exactly what we had in this case,” she said. “Even their expert said he could have diverted.”
She said West should have pleaded guilty after the video was shown in court, proving that he lied to police when he said the Gar Wood was unlit. The video, taken from the shore, shows three navigation lights shining from Knarr’s boat.
“He has never shown any remorse,” she said. “He has never accepted responsibility.”
Coleman said she will file an appeal of the conviction on West’s behalf Tuesday. A state judge recently denied Coleman’s request to allow West to remain free while the appeal is pending in the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division.
Meanwhile, local officials and law enforcement agencies are working to ensure that Log Bay Day, a longstanding summer tradition fueled by binge drinking and drug use, doesn’t happen again.