TAMPA — One Sunday two years ago as the sun set on the Alafia River, two young girls sat in a round inflatable tube tugged by a boat called Phoenix on the crowded waterway.
Beth and Dan Yankle saw the boat and the raft drifting downriver, toward Tampa Bay, as they sat watching the water traffic from the dock behind their Riverview home. Then came a loud buzz. From around a riverbend, a personal watercraft appeared, zipping through the no-wake zone toward the raft.
“I was standing up, shouting and motioning to slow down,” Beth Yankle said in court Monday. She recalled watching in terror as the watercraft sped up and came down on the raft with a bang.
The couple’s respective accounts of the horrifying scene were among the first testimony in the trial of Andrew Miltner, which opened Monday in a Tampa courtroom.
Prosecutors say Miltner, who piloted the watercraft, caused the collision, which ended the life of 12-year-old Jasina Campbell.
They say he was drunk that evening, May 17, 2020, as he rode the watercraft. They called his actions reckless.
Miltner, 42, is charged with manslaughter by boating under the influence, vessel homicide and BUI with serious bodily injury.
But in opening statements, his attorneys conveyed a more complicated tale, one they said amounted to a tragic accident.
“The witness testimony you’re going to hear is going to be very unfortunate,” defense attorney Dominic Fariello told the jury. “We believe it’s going to show that nobody on the river that day ... actually committed a crime on May 17, 2020.”
The defense lawyer walked the jury through a complicated narrative involving a dozen people who had spent the day on the water with Miltner and the girls. One man, Donald Leske, had jumped off the boat that was towing the girls, and surfaced behind the watercraft, the lawyer said.
He pulled on Miltner’s back, the lawyer said, causing Miltner to rev up the engine to full throttle. The watercraft jolted, whipped around in a “J formation,” the lawyer said, and landed on the pair. Leske jumped off before impact, Fariello said.
The defense lawyer noted a blood sample taken from Miltner hours afterward showed his blood alcohol content at .063, which is below the .08 threshold at which state law presumes impairment.
What the jury decides may come down to what surviving witnesses say they saw.
From the witness stand, Beth and Dan Yankle recalled that dozens of vessels were on the water that day as people sought escape from lockdowns in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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They only saw Miltner as the watercraft moved toward the raft.
“It didn’t slow down,” Beth Yankle said. “In fact, when it got closer, right before that collision, it sped up.”
She said she could see the tops of the girls’ heads as the watercraft came down on them.
Her voice rose to a high pitch as she described hearing a loud bang.
“The impact was so violent that my neighbor almost an acre away heard the sound,” she said. “It was so loud. I have never heard anything that loud like that. It was horrendous.”
As the watercraft kept moving, the girls vanished beneath the surface. The other girl, identified in court only as “Taylor,” soon surfaced.
“It appeared she was kind of in shock,” she said. “She wasn’t really moving.”
Some distance away, Beth Yankle saw the watercraft driver come to a stop. She yelled for him to come back.
Miltner turned around and helped return Taylor to the boat, his attorney said.
At the same time, Dan Yankle dove into the river.
“I’m swimming as fast as I can,” he recalled.
He took deep breaths and dove, searching for Jasina. The water was deep and dark, he said. It was hard to see. He kept diving. He kept looking.
“There was nothing,” he said.
He got out and retrieved a kayak from the dock and across the river and back again, hoping to find her. People gathered at the dock. They began to hear sirens.
A Sheriff’s Office dive team found Jasina about 35 minutes after the collision, about 12 feet underwater.
Miltner’s charges carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison if he’s convicted.