ST. PETERSBURG — The night of Oct. 2 began with rum, beer and five teenagers on a shark fishing trip. It ended with an accident that killed a St. Petersburg High School senior.
Now it has led to criminal charges, but not the serious felonies that sometimes result from crashes involving alcohol. Paige Alyssa Davison, 17, died after a boat she was on struck a poorly lit jetty near Albert Whitted Airport.
Evidence indicated 18-year-old David L. West had been drinking that night, as well as operating his parents' 22-foot boat with a 250-horsepower motor. But he was not drunk, and not reckless enough to be charged with a felony such as manslaughter, prosecutors said.
On Monday he was charged with "careless operation of a vessel resulting in a boating accident," a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail.
West's attorney, Denis de Vlaming, said "absolutely horrible circumstances came together" on that night, which "turned into an unspeakable tragedy." He said West is devastated by what happened, has suffered nightmares and "he's been in my office, tears have run down his face." But de Vlaming was quick to add that West's pain is "nothing like Paige's family has gone through."
The other teenage boy on board drank enough to get intoxicated, but did not operate the boat and did not get charged, prosecutors said.
Two others on land did get charged — an adult who allegedly sold beer to two of the teenage girls and a youth accused of providing rum to the boys. The youth was charged in juvenile court.
Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger said West and his friend Trey Sorensen drank Sailor Jerry rum that they got from a friend that evening. They also spent time trying unsuccessfully to fix the boat's GPS navigational device.
Also that evening, Grissinger said, the boys went to the Quick Thru store at 4025 Fourth Street N, and two of the girls — Davison and Kelli Delange — bought a 24 pack of Coors Light beer. The third girl, Kelsey Bedinghaus, was not involved in buying the beer, Grissinger said.
A store owner, Rajesh Patel, was charged Monday with a misdemeanor of selling alcohol to minors.
While the teenagers were in the boat, Grissinger said, Sorensen passed out. She said a test later showed his blood alcohol content was 0.12 percent. A level of 0.08 percent is the threshold at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to safely operate a motor vehicle.
The other teenagers were worried about him. They decided to head back to shore and get help. At this point West, as the boat operator, should have posted a "proper lookout," Grissinger said. That way, the teens might have realized they were about to hit the jetty.
"The crash was the result of David West's careless operation," Grissinger said. "It was nighttime, he didn't have a proper lookout and he was probably slightly distracted" by the worries about Sorensen, she said.
West was not drunk and "alcohol did not cause David West to collide with that jetty," she said.
Grissinger said tests showed no alcohol in Delange. Tests showed a small amount, about 0.01 percent, in the body of Davison, Grissinger said.
None of the teens tested positive for any illegal drugs.
Davison, a senior at St. Petersburg High School and a member of the school's swim team, was "an exceptional girl," family members have said. Her friends have described her as always smiling, always optimistic, a sweetheart.
Her parents could not be reached Monday, and neither could an attorney who has filed a lawsuit on their behalf against West, his parents and Quick Thru. The parents applauded an earlier decision by government officials to destroy the jetty, saying, "Nothing can replace the loss of our child, but our prayers are answered that another family will not experience such a loss at this fatal site."
Grissinger said she relied on the state attorney's own investigation, as well as one by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, whose officers "did a very thorough job in this case."
At least three civil cases stemming from the accident are pending.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.