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Newly released evidence details fatal boat crash

The Boston Whaler crashed into a channel marker in the Pithlachascotee River late on the evening of Sept. 1. Soon after, a frantic young woman called 911.

"Please, we're on the boat and he fell off the boat ... and he's not breathing. We're trying to give him CPR, please help me," said Denelle Walicke, 25. "Please come, he's foaming at the mouth, and he's purple."

Joshua Griffin, 29, died that day, in a crash that came after a day of partying; five months later, his older brother Jeffery was charged with manslaughter while boating under the influence of alcohol. Newly released evidence in the case gives a detailed account of what happened in the hours before the crash and the actions of Griffin's politically prominent family immediately afterward.

•••

The day began at the Anclote Sandbar in Pasco County. Malia Zeglarski, 28, told a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigator she and the Griffins and friends spent about three hours listening to music, hanging out and drinking beer. Next, they drove the boat to Hooters, where a waitress named Jasmine Russell told investigators she saw the Griffins and their friends partying.

"All of them were having fun and drinking," she said in a statement. "To my belief they were drunk. Not stumbling or being obnoxious, but definitely drunk."

Around 10 p.m, the Griffins went next door to the Seaside Inn Restaurant. Thomas Giamo, a member of The Bearded Brothers band, told the FWC that Jeffery Griffin, 32, offered to buy the band a round of drinks, and then offered Giamo a ride on the boat. He declined. The Griffin brothers and Walicke left the dock near Hooters around 11 p.m. The weather was clear, but at some point they left the channel.

"The channel was clearly marked with Channel Markers,'' according to the report. The weather was clear, the wind was light.

The boat was equipped with radar and a chart plotter, the report said, which were both operational and ''should have been used to detect the channel boundaries.''

A spotlight was on board but stowed. The starboard (right) bow light was improperly mounted, illuminating the interior of the bow.

"The illumination would have caused partial night blindness to the operator and lookout," the report said.

The boat crashed into Channel Marker 10A some time after 11:30.

The impact knocked Walicke unconscious. Joshua Griffin hit the marker and fell into the water. Jeffrey Griffin dropped anchor and went in after his brother. Walicke woke up and called 911. Jeffrey Griffin started CPR, while the 911 operator tried to figure out exactly where they were.

About 30 minutes later the boat reached a cluster of houses on Harborpointe Drive in New Port Richey. Lt. Perry Palumbo of the Port Richey Fire Department was the first man on the boat; he pronounced Joshua Griffin dead at 12:13.

Port Richey Police Sgt. Michael Koch arrived next. In his report, he wrote that Walicke was in shock and Jeffery Griffin "was angry, frustrated and filled with sorrow." He refused officers' commands to leave his brother's side.

Koch said officers feared a physical confrontation with Jeffery Griffin, so Koch decided to calm him down. They didn't want Griffin to compromise what was now an active crime scene.

Word of the crash spread, and a news crew and family members showed up.

Port Richey Police Officer Robert Kern said vehicles sped into the neighborhood, with a blue Hummer H2 in the lead, driven by Jeff Griffin, father of the two boys. Following, in a Chevy Silverado, was sister Jessica Griffin and another Griffin sibling.

Officer Kern wrote that he stood in front of the Hummer, trying to placate Jeff Griffin. When Kern started to walk away, the father "began to back up at a high rate of speed" and struck him, yelling "'I know Sheriff (Chris) Nocco! He's a personal friend and I'm gonna get answers.'" Kern was not hurt.

The two Griffin vehicles drove to houses near the seawall where a crowd had gathered. Jessica Griffin ran toward the boat. FWC Officer Kevin Beckman grabbed her by the arm to keep her from the crime scene.

"You better get the sheriff here. I work for a state senator," she said, according to Kern. " I want the sheriff here now!"

Beckman tried to handcuff her, he wrote, and take her to the ground. She broke free. He said she turned to face him in an "offensive stance," so he shot her with his stun gun. Beckman charged her with disorderly conduct, resisting an arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer. She was not arrested; the charges were referred to the State Attorney's office, which did not pursue them.

Jeff Griffin, according to Beckman's report, told Beckman "so a big fella like you can't control a small girl like my daughter."

Additional law enforcement arrived, and eventually Jeffery Griffin was led off the boat. His blood alcohol came back at 0.093. Florida law presumes boat drivers are impaired at 0.08. His case is up for a status review next month at the West Pasco Courthouse. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years. There is no minimum sentence.

The Griffin family is well-established in Pasco and its politics, having hosted numerous rallies for Republican candidates at their central Pasco Hallelujah Land Ranch, often drawing up to 150 GOP faithful at a time. Marco Rubio held a rally there during his 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate.

A call to Jeffery Griffin's lawyer was not returned, but the family maintains a Facebook memorial page for Joshua Griffin, where family and friends share memories.

"What can a Father and Mother say at a time like this? Joshua was so loved by his brothers and sister. He was their best friend," Jeff Griffin wrote in his son's obituary. "Our hearts are in the need of major repair."

Last September, Jeff Griffin, told the Times his sons "were bonded together. Jeremy's just devastated. This is his best friend."

Newly released evidence details fatal boat crash 05/21/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 12:40pm]
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