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Largo teen faces hearing Monday in fatal Intracoastal boat crash

Gavin Johnston, 17, is charged as an adult in the death of Rachel Herring, one of seven teens aboard a boat Johnston was driving when he hit a channel marker.
During a Nov. 2 vigil near John's Pass, candles light a memorial for Rachel Herring, 16, who died in a boat crash the day before.
During a Nov. 2 vigil near John's Pass, candles light a memorial for Rachel Herring, 16, who died in a boat crash the day before. [ NATALIE WEBER | Times ]
Published Jul. 15
Updated Jul. 19

CLEARWATER — A Largo teen is scheduled to appear in court Monday to face a homicide charge in the death of a girl who was thrown from a boat during a crash along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Gavin Johnston, 17, is charged with second-degree vessel homicide in the death of 16-year-old Rachel Herring, one of seven teens aboard a boat Johnston was driving when he hit a channel marker Nov. 1.

Johnston is charged as an adult in the case and faces up to 15 years in prison, but his age will likely be a factor in whatever punishment is recommended to a judge, State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said Tuesday.

Attorneys for the Herring and Johnston families have been discussing an appropriate sentence, Bartlett said.

“It’s such a tragic incident that has affected so many lives,” said Kevin Hayslett, Johnston’s attorney. “And these were all good people. And I’m hopeful that the people who were involved will come to the right decisions.”

The crash occurred about 1 a.m. Nov. 1 as the boat was returning from a Halloween party at a home near the Treasure Island Causeway. The boat was speeding in a no-wake zone when it collided with the channel marker off Indian Shores, ejecting everyone onboard, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said.

When deputies arrived at the scene, Herring was missing. Her body was found about an hour later in the Intracoastal. None of the teens had been wearing personal flotation devices, the Sheriff’s Office said. Johnston had minor scrapes on his arms and legs.

Johnston violated five U.S. Coast Guard safety rules, according to an arrest affidavit: responsibility, safe speed, risk of collision, operation in narrow channels and visibility of lights. He told investigators he had been traveling at about 30 mph.

Some of the teens on board had been drinking on the way to the party and the driver was seen drinking at the party hours before the crash, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference the day of the crash. But the driver showed no signs of impairment immediately afterward, Gualtieri said.

Herring, who had attended Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole, was remembered at a vigil the day after her death as a promising young dancer, a smart student and supportive of her friends.