Captain Charged in Sailor's Sad, Strange Death

Rick Smith is under arrest in the US Virgin Islands
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 9, 2018 5:45 PM CST
Updated Dec 10, 2018 1:33 AM CST
Stock image.   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – A Maine seaman is facing up to 10 years in prison for the death of a sailor on his boat—who committed suicide. "Nothing like this has ever happened to me," Rick Smith tells the Press Herald. According to reports, interviews, and court documents, Smith was piloting his two-masted vessel down to the US Virgin Islands in 2015 when he replaced one of three crew members with a man he didn't know: David Pontious. Boarding in Beaufort, NC, the 54-year-old came with sailing credentials but seemed out of shape. He soon got seasick, had aural and visual hallucinations, and called wildly for help on the VHF radio. Standing at 6 feet and weighing at least 250 pounds, Pontious allegedly punched and tried choking Smith. "Touch my equipment again and I will slit your throat," Smith told him. A few minutes later, Pontious jumped into the Atlantic and sank under a nearly full moon.

The law moved slowly, but in 2018 the US Virgin Islands charged Smith with a rarely used federal statute called "seaman's manslaughter"—alleging that Smith's "misconduct, negligence and inattention to duties" caused Pontious' death. Smith's lawyer says prosecutors are just angry the captain declined a grand jury invitation, while the feds say Smith failed to deploy the boat's emergency beacon to alert the Coast Guard when Pontious jumped over. Smith also dumped marijuana and an illegal firearm off the boat, per the Virgin Islands Daily News. An antidepressant pill found in Pontious' key fob may also affect the case. Now 66, Smith remains under house arrest in the Virgin Islands awaiting trial. (In related news, a submarine that vanished with 44 crewmen was found a year later.)

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