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Pathologist: 8-year-old Charlotte died 'almost immediately'

Pathologist: 8-year-old Charlotte died 'almost immediately'

Alexander West trial enters third day
Pathologist: 8-year-old Charlotte died 'almost immediately'
Alexander West arrives at the Warren County courthouse in Queensbury, N.Y., April 18, 2017.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

Tim Turnbull was sipping a whiskey-ginger and sitting back in his chair on the deck of a Lake George resort. The July summer night was quiet and the lake was still. Joined by his fiancee, his weeklong vacation from police work in western New York had just begun.

Then he heard sirens and saw the lights of emergency vehicles, either on the water or on the road encircling it — he wasn’t sure. From the Tea Island Resort where they were staying, he soon heard a boat driving slowly, “almost gurgling,” as if it were about to stall.

“I thought, ‘I drove five hours to get away from this for a week, and something’s going on here,'” Turnbull, a detective with the Cheektowaga Police Department, said Friday during day three of the trial of Alexander West, the 25-year-old accused of crashing his boat under the influence of drugs and alcohol at about 9:20 p.m. on July 25. The collision resulted in the death of 8-year-old Charlotte McCue. West is being tried in Warren County Court.

Out on the water, Ronald Miller was driving his boat toward the Inn at Erlowest, where his daughter and son-in-law had enjoyed a meal and from which they needed a ride home. 

“All of the sudden … in front of me is this shape in the water,” Miller recalled in court. “I immediately slow down. I steer to the right to avoid the collision course of the boat.”

The boat had no lights on it, and the people he could see inside, “at least three or more,” were huddled down, making no attempt to signal for help, he said.

Meanwhile, from his seat on the deck, Turnbull watched the boat dock at the resort and four people get out, he told the jury. The off-duty cop was back in detective mode. 

“They were just moving around the boat, almost in a panic,” he said. “I watched and heard a female with blond hair say to somebody, ‘What are you doing? Are you on your cellphone? Are you texting somebody?’ And then she said, ‘Don’t you dare text anybody about what happened here.’ She seemed like the ringleader to me.” 

Turnbull said he heard a man ask the “female who seemed to be in control of things” if they should take a beer cooler off the boat. She responded, “Take the beer cooler? What are you talking about? Why would we take the beer cooler?”

Then Turnbull heard the same woman say “Shut the [expletive] up” — twice, he told the jury. 

“I saw one of the males pull the hoodie up over his head and pull the string really tight so you couldn’t see his face,” he continued, referring to the taller of two men he observed. Prosecutors believe the shorter man, who Turnbull said remained silent, was West.  

Turnbull said he watched them walk up a hill “pretty quick” and leave the resort on foot, heading north. He went down to the boat to get its registration before calling the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

“Are you guys looking for anybody right now?” he asks a dispatcher in the call played in court Friday. 

“Yes, sir,” she responds.

“Yeah, I figured,” he says, before reading her the boat’s registration.

The Sheriff’s Department then traced the registration to the boat owned by West’s father, Martin West. James LaFarr, a major with the Sheriff’s Department who also testified Friday, drove to the West residence on Lockhart Road in the middle of the night and knocked on the door repeatedly, getting no response. He found a landline phone number for the home at about 3:15 a.m. and called it; Martin West answered.

“I asked him if there was a specific person at his residence,” LaFarr said in court. He withheld the finer details of the call — like that he was asking for Alexander West and what Martin said back — because sharing them in front of the jury would be hearsay, according to West’s attorney, Cheryl Coleman. They soon had a face-to-face conversation, he said, and LaFarr told Martin West that investigators “were attempting to locate these people.” 

Before tracking down Martin West, LaFarr responded to the Glens Falls Hospital where he met a distraught Robert Knarr — Charlotte’s grandfather and the driver of the 28-foot Gar Wood boat she had been riding in. District Attorney Kate Hogan asked him if Knarr appeared intoxicated or impaired in any way. He said no. The defense has highlighted that Knarr refused to take a breathalyzer test that night, with Kathryn Conklin, another attorney for West, saying this week he had consumed wine and prescribed medication.

During the trial's third day, the jurors heard from eight witnesses, who also included emergency personnel who responded to the McCue’s boathouse at 39 Cramer Point. 

Doni Lyn Smyth, an EMT with the Lake George Fire Department, recalled lifting a blanket that was covering Charlotte, whose body lay in the docked boat, before realizing it was too late for CPR.

“I always go for the head, and at that point I lunged forward and backed off, because there wasn’t really any place for me to put my hands,” she said. “It was an obvious death — there was no viable life there.”

Charlotte died “almost immediately” after a powerboat drove over the Gar Wood boat she and her family were riding in, the doctor who performed her autopsy testified. 

“She would have suffered brain death,” said Michael Sikirica, a board-certified forensic pathologist from Waterford.

Sikirica said the girl’s injuries were consistent with those caused by motorboat propellers. Her left arm was nearly amputated. Her left pinky was taken off. Her skull was fractured, and she suffered lung damage from blunt-force trauma, the result of “very severe forces,” he told the jury.

West faces a 12-count indictment that includes manslaughter and second-degree assault, the latter charge related to serious physical injuries suffered in the crash by Courtney McCue, Charlotte's mother. A conviction on those two charges could result in up to 22 years in prison.

The trial will continue Monday morning.

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