CLEARWATER — Gavin Johnston was at the wheel when a boat carrying seven teens from a Halloween party slammed into a channel marker on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Everyone aboard the 24-foot boat was ejected. Rachel Herring, 16, died.
Now, Johnston has been prohibited from driving a boat under terms of a sentence he received Monday for vessel homicide in the second degree. The crime carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, but in part because of his age, 17, Johnston was ordered to serve five years probation, 300 hours of community service, abstain from alcohol until he is 21, and write a letter of apology.
His probation could end, and he could drive a boat again, if he abides by all these conditions for the next 30 months.
“You were given the highest responsibility,” Steve Page, a spokesman for Herring’s family, told Johnston during Monday’s hearing. “You were carrying the most precious cargo.”
Page held up an enlarged photo of Herring and her family held onto one another as he spoke.
“All of us would have given our lives to protect her,” Page said. “In one quick moment, a young man destroyed it all.”
Earlier, Johnston addressed the court, wearing a suit and reading from a paper titled, “Rachel’s Letter.”
“When someone trusts you with the person that is most important to them, it is a gigantic responsibility,” Johnston said. “Unfortunately, I think that the significance of that responsibility is lost on most people my age. I know I did not appreciate it before this.”
Johnston’s statement was the first apology the family had heard from him, Page said.
Kevin Hayslett, Johnston’s lawyer, said the sentence may seem light but Johnston had no prior convictions. Hayslett said the two families worked together to recommend a sentence.
The crash occurred about 1 a.m. Nov. 1 as the boat — a 24-foot, center-console Yellowfin powered by a 400-horsepower Mercury outboard — was returning from a Halloween party at a home near the Treasure Island Causeway. The boat was speeding at about 30 mph in a no-wake zone when it collided with the channel marker off Indian Shores, 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.
Some of the teens on board had been drinking alcohol on the way to the party and Johnston was seen drinking alcohol at the party hours before the crash, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference Nov. 1. But Johnston showed no signs of impairment, 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.
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After Monday’s sentencing, in the hallway at the Clearwater courthouse, Herring’s family hugged again and offered one another condolences.
“I would say I agree with the sentencing,” Page said. “There’s no sentence that fits. It’s a very difficult situation.”