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Passenger's drug history focus at fatal boat crash trial

Passenger's drug history focus at fatal boat crash trial

She testifies as part of plea bargain
Passenger's drug history focus at fatal boat crash trial
Alexander West carries a suitcase for his attorney as he leaves Warren County Court on Thursday.
Photographer: NED CAMPBELL

After hearing Cara Mia Canale testify about smoking “dabs’ of hashish and snorting cocaine with Alexander West at last year's Log Bay Day, West’s attorney asked the question floating in the air like a cloud of smoke. 

“Are you on drugs today?” Cheryl Coleman asked Canale, her eyes bloodshot and watery.

Cara Mia Canale.jpg

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“No,” said Canale, who appeared tired and spoke slowly Thursday, her mouth hanging open between questions. She rubbed her left eye throughout her testimony, telling a concerned prosecutor that she must be allergic to something in the courtroom.

“Did you take a drug test?” Coleman pressed, earning an objection from the prosecutors that prevented a response. 

Coleman had already asked if she had used any drugs in the last week, to which Canale answered yes: marijuana and suboxone, a prescription drug for treating opiate addiction.

Canale testified against West — the man accused of crashing his powerboat on July 25, resulting in the death of 8-year-old Charlotte McCue on Lake George — as part of a plea bargain with the Warren County District Attorney’s Office. The deal knocked up to four years in prison down to probation for Canale, who was one of four passengers on West’s boat when it crashed. She had been charged with giving a false statement and hindering prosecution following the fatal boat crash. She was charged again in September with driving under the influence of drugs and criminal possession of a controlled substance, related to heroin. The sentencing for the plea deal has been adjourned until after West's trial.

Canale told Coleman she had been clean for 18 months before the crash, but relapsed on heroin and alcohol after being fired from her job working for Albany’s ARC organization, which provides support to individuals with developmental disabilities, on July 29. 

“Out of all the people in the world, out of all the people on the boat, that’s who they chose to make their deal with, and that’s who they’re rewarding,” Coleman told reporters after the trial’s second day of testimony was finished, “and they got her not even on a drug-test leash … is this credible testimony?”

Canale’s testimony is important to the prosecutor’s case because blood test results showing marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy in West’s system after he crashed the boat will not be used as evidence in the trial. Prosecutors defended the decision in a Jan. 17 court filing by saying a search warrant directing sheriff’s deputies to sample West’s blood did not meet the technical requirements of criminal procedure law.

West, of Lake George, faces a 12-count indictment that includes manslaughter and second-degree assault, the latter charge related to causing serious physical injury to Charlotte’s mother, Courtney McCue. He faces up to 22 years in prison if convicted.

The charges accuse him of driving his powerboat under the influence of drugs and alcohol when it struck another boat off Cramer Point at about 9:20 p.m.

Canale started her testimony by saying she met West at a Phish concert, which took place July 4 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. About three weeks later, at Log Bay Day, an annual summer party, she told the jury, she smoked dabs and snorted cocaine with West and another friend on two occasions in the boat’s cuddy — once at 3 p.m. and again at around 6 p.m. The “baggy” of cocaine came from West’s wallet, she said. 

“We weren’t, like, blowing rails of cocaine,” she said. “We were just, like, dipping the corner of a credit card into the baggy of coke and sniffing it that way.”

She said she fell asleep after the second time snorting coke, prompting Coleman to ask her how that was possible if cocaine is a stimulant. Canale then said she had been tired from not sleeping much the night before.

“I also had been tripping on acid the night before,” Canale said.

“You didn’t tell anybody that before,” Coleman replied. 

Canale and West joined a group of friends who arrived at Log Bay on West’s 22-foot powerboat between 10 and 11 a.m., she said. They brought two 12-packs of Corona, which Canale bought, a case of Bud Light, “and that was it,” Canale said. “There was food brought as well.”

She said she saw West drinking throughout the day — Bud Light with a Koozie, an alcoholic punch in a cup, and two Moscow Mules at a restaurant where they stopped for dinner before taking the boat toward Cramer Point.

In response, Coleman pointed to Canale's previous testimony to a grand jury that he appeared unimpaired at the time of the crash. She got Canale to admit she never saw West slur his words and that his motor coordination appeared unaffected even though, according to Canale, “he had been drinking all day.”

“He didn’t seem intoxicated to me in any way,” Canale said.

Canale also recalled the ride before the crash, saying West was consoling another passenger, Christine Tiger, and “turned directly in the opposite way of, you know, where he should have been looking.” Coleman later had Canale clarify that West did not look away at the time the crash occurred

Canale was sitting in the passenger seat next to West. Asked by a prosecutor if she was serving as a lookout, she said, “No — I don’t even know what that is.”

Canale said she remembered another passenger, Matt Marry, asking West how fast he was going, and he said 30 or 35 mph — which was faster than the lake’s 25 mph nighttime speed limit.

“We hit something extremely hard,” she said. “I did not think it was another boat. I thought it was, like, something sticking out of the water. That’s how hard we impacted with the boat. I remember kind of going, like, airborne almost, and then coming down into the water, and the water coming up over the sides of the boat, and I immediately turned around to see if everyone in the back was OK.”

The passengers were on the floor of the boat. Canale could see taillights form the boat they had hit “driving away pretty fast,” she said.

She heard screams coming from the boat, a 28-foot Gar Wood that was carrying Charlotte and her family.

“There would be no way that any of us would have known that there was a fatality, but I knew that what had happened was not, not, not good,” she said. “I remember him [West] distinctly saying, ‘But I had the right of way.’ I remember him punching the steering wheel. I remember him getting up and walking away from the steering wheel of the boat, and within three seconds he went back to the steering wheel.”

Coleman would not say if her client, West, claimed to have the right of way right after the collision, but said cause would be a major component of the defense. She plans to have a boating expert testify.

“That’s going to be a game-changer,” she said.

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