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Boating expert testifies in Alex West trial

Boating expert testifies in Alex West trial

Weinreber is a retired state trooper who teaches marine law enforcement to police officers
Boating expert testifies in Alex West trial
Alexander West leaves Warren County Court on Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Photographer: Ned Campbell

QUEENSBURY -- A retired state trooper who teaches marine law enforcement to police officers said Friday that Robert Knarr’s Gar Wood boat had three navigation lights on when Alexander West crashed into it with his powerboat on Lake George the night of July 25. 

The testimony from Eric Weinreber, who worked in marine law enforcement for 18 of his 28 years with the state police, came a day after a Warren County jury saw video of West’s interview with police. West can be heard saying he doesn’t think the other boat had any lights on at the time of the crash. He says his boat was “cruising nice and slowly,” and the other boat “came out of nowhere.” 

“I’m being honest — that’s nothing to lie about,” he told an investigator when pressed about not seeing any lights on the other boat. 

Weinreber based his assessment on surveillance footage of the crash off Cramer Point that was taken from the shore. That footage was played again in court Friday. 

“You can clearly see three navigation lights in view on the Gar Wood pre-collision,” he said, adding that the light on the right side of the boat was knocked out by the crash. 

Only one navigation light, on the bow, is visible on West’s boat before the crash, he said. The law requires two navigation lights to be on at night. 

Weinreber was the only new witness Friday in the trial of West, the 25-year-old Lake George man accused of being drunk and high on drugs when he caused the crash that claimed the life of 8-year-old Charlotte McCue. The girl was riding in the Gar Wood with her grandparents, parents and two siblings, at the time of the crash.

The defense has called the crash a crossing situation, and West can be heard saying in the police interview video that he had the right-of-way. A passenger in his boat that night, Cara Mia Canale, testified last week that she heard West say he had the right-of-way after impact.  

Weinreber explained that the bow of West’s boat, a 21-foot Larsen, collided with the Gar Wood’s starboard (right) side, “passing through the passenger compartment, as the cuts in the seat show, reaching deep into the passenger compartment before exiting off the other side.”

“The Gar Wood is going to start to roll to the starboard side,” he said, describing the impact. “The weight of the Larsen is pulling it down … It’s going to cause the Gar Wood to start to rotate clockwise” and the Larsen to rotate in the other direction. 

The impact with the gunwale, a “very solid piece of metal,” at the top of the Gar Wood's starboard side caused a blade of the propellor on West’s boat to break off, he said. 

Weinreber also said the Gar Wood appeared to be moving at 5 to 10 mph, and the Larsen "a minimum of 20 mph."

There were also four passengers on the boat, which could have required a faster speed in order to reach the planing (leveled-out) mode the boat was in, he said.

"The more weight you have on the boat, the more speed it takes to keep it up on plane," he said. It definitely was not operating at a low speed. Visually, you can also tell that it is traveling at a much higher speed than the other vessel."

Kathryn Conklin, West’s attorney, aggressively questioned Weinreber, who was called by investigators to lead the reconstruction of the crash. She referred to several inconsistencies between his notes and the reconstruction report he filed. Weinreber called them “clerical errors."

“The damage itself on the vessel is what we’re looking at,” he said in defending a missing measurement. “We’ve had several people working on this, and more than likely, someone in there hit a backstroke and deleted that.”

Conklin pressed: “Are you saying that the measurements don’t matter, Eric?” 

“They’re a reference,” he replied.

As an experienced expert witness, he didn’t appear phased by questions over the finer details of his reconstruction of the crash, answering calmly. Weinreber said he has performed reconstructions for seven fatal motorboat accidents and testified in court five times previously — always for the prosecution, he confirmed to Conklin.

Conklin also questioned him for driving a motorboat to the scene of the crash during the day and not at night, when the conditions would have been more similar to those of the crash, which occurred shortly after 9:20 p.m.

She said there would be lights along the shore at night, which could be confusing to boaters like West. 

“I know the operator of the Larsen had said there were lights on shore,” Weinreber said. “He wasn’t sure what he was looking at, which is indicative of, 'if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re supposed to slow down.'”

“Thank you for that,” Conklin replied. “I like these add-ons — I really appreciate them.”

Conklin’s cross-examination of Weinreber was cut short by Judge John Hall, though he was expected to be back on the stand Monday morning. Eric McCue, Charlotte McCue's father, is due to testify next, bringing an end to the prosecution’s case. The defense is expected to begin calling witnesses Monday afternoon. 

Before breaking for the day, Judge Hall told West he should talk to his lawyers about whether he will testify.

“Probably the most important decision in a trial is whether a defendant should testify,” he said.

West replied, "Definitely. Thank you, judge.”

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