Christine Knarr remembers breathing a sigh of gratitude as her family’s boat slowly approached the shore of Lake George one July night, her husband at the helm and their three grandchildren about ready for bed.
She called these rides “putt-putt cruises” because they were a way to relax with family. Her 8-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte McCue, had just fallen asleep on a bench behind them, her head resting on the lap of her mother, Courtney McCue.
“And then Courtney yelled, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God,’ ” Knarr said Wednesday in Warren County Court, recalling the fatal boat ride that would leave young Charlotte dead and cause serious injury to Courtney. “I looked up and there was a hull of a boat above our heads.”
She said she remembered hearing “boom, boom, splash,” and then seeing Charlotte bounce “like a rag doll.”
In a 911 recording played Wednesday, Knarr can be heard saying, “Oh my God, she’s not OK. Please, please hurry. Please.” She then tells Courtney to “hang onto me, hang onto me, hang onto me.”
Knarr put her head down and cried while the recording played.
“Her whole left side was just filleted open — she was just cut in several places,” she said.
The trial of Alexander West began Wednesday, with District Attorney Kate Hogan painting a picture of a family who spent the day fishing on Lake George, only to have it end in tragedy.
By contrast, Hogan told the jury, West spent the day partying at Log Bay Day with friends — drinking, snorting cocaine and smoking hashish — before driving a 22-foot power boat that night.
West, of Lake George, is accused of crashing the boat under the influence of drugs and alcohol at about 9:20 p.m. July 25, a collision that killed 8-year-old Charlotte. McCue’s family is from Carlsbad, California, and they were in Lake George to visit McCue’s grandparents, Christine and Robert Knarr.
Hogan said in her opening statement that West did not report the accident to police until the next day, when he knew he would be sober. He also drove his boat, along with four passengers, away from the scene, stopping at Tea Island Resort “where he knew the owner,” she said.
“He didn’t even go to the closest point on shore and just take care of his own boat,” she said. “No, he fled and he hid.”
Defense attorney Kathryn Conklin gives her opening statement. (Shawn LaChapelle/Pool)
Kathryn Conklin, who along with Cheryl Coleman is representing West, suggested he didn’t know at the time about the fatality and injury that occurred.
“He was in an accident,” she told the jury. “His boat’s not working, it shuts down — they’re trying to start that boat back up. You will hear that individuals from Alex’s boat shouted to the Gar Wood and asked if they were OK and didn’t get a response. Reasonable doubts.”
Hogan did her best to show that the chaos coming from the Gar Wood would have been hard to ignore. She called as her first witness Gregory S. Guerrieri, who was on the lakeside porch of a rented home at 39 Cramer Point Road shortly after 9:20 p.m. when an otherwise tranquil night was interrupted by what he called the sound of a speeding boat.
Guerrieri, 53, said he knew the boat was speeding from the noise it made, having grown up around his parents’ marina and owning a boat himself.
“I heard vrrrrmmmm, BAM, SPLASH,” he said.
He ran inside to call 911 and said he could hear screaming and people yelling, “Oh my God.”
“The screaming and the yelling, it never stopped,” he said. “It was something that you thought you heard out of a movie. It was horrid. It was absolutely blood-curdling.”
He recalled meeting the family at the boathouse next door when they were able to dock their damaged boat. He wiped tears from his eyes as a recording of one of three 911 calls he made that night played the moment when he realized Charlotte’s life was past saving.
The dispatcher is providing instructions on CPR as Charlotte’s grandmother, who has his phone, tries to revive her.
“She doesn’t have a chest left,” Guerrieri can be heard telling the dispatcher. “She’s gone.”
Guerrieri said he also helped Charlotte’s mother, Courtney, that night, covering the gash on her leg with a towel, wrapping another towel around her body and holding her tight until the ambulance arrived.
“At one point I thought she might actually pass in my arms,” he said.
His son, Gregory A. Guerrieri, 26, also testified. He was inside the lake house at the time of the crash, playing a board game with his little sister and his girlfriend. He heard the screaming and went outside.
“I could hear kids crying ‘mommy.’ … It was a moment of horror,” he said.
Hogan asked him who was closer to the Gar Wood — him or the other boat.
“The other boat — much closer,“ he said.
Hogan also called to the stand Jennifer Farmer, the Warren County dispatcher who spoke to the elder Guerrieri that night. The district attorney asked her if she received any 911 calls from West or any anonymous calls, and Farmer said no.
“It was chaos in our room,“ she said. “There were multiple 911 calls that we all handled and answered.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Conklin criticized Hogan’s emotional opening statement, saying anger and sadness are not “elements to the charges” included in the 12-count indictment. They include manslaughter and second-degree assault, the latter charge related to serious physical injuries suffered in the crash by Courtney McCue.
“It’s not about the sadness and the tragedy that happened here,” said Conklin. “When you’re listening to the evidence, say to yourself, what does this have to do with Alex, the individual being charged with these serious offenses?”
Conklin also said the jury would hear from Robert Knarr, whom she said refused to take a Breathalyzer test after the crash. She said Knarr, Charlotte’s grandfather and the Gar Wood’s driver that night, “was fearful because he had had wine and medication due to a recent doctor’s visit.”
West faces up to 22 years in prison if convicted on the charges.