An investigator probing a deadly midnight boat crash on Lake Tobesofkee says video footage of the July wreck was captured as it happened by surveillance cameras on shore and that the driver of one of the two boats involved had been drinking alcohol “throughout the day.”
Those and other details emerged publicly for the first time this week at a probable cause hearing for Eric Delma Head, 57, who in early December was arrested on charges that include first-degree homicide by vessel, boating under the influence and driving recklessly.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials have revealed little about the incident, which happened when a 32-foot-long Fountain powerboat with Head at the helm struck a 24-foot Bentley pontoon boat in the wee hours of July 24.
Six people were injured on the pontoon boat, which was said to be floating with its motor off in the middle of the lake not far from Sandy Beach.
A seventh person on the pontoon boat, 22-year-old William Childs, was killed.
During testimony at a hearing on Wednesday in which the charges against Head were bound over to Bibb County Superior Court, Cpl. Steve Robinson, a DNR investigator, said that when passengers on the pontoon boat saw Head’s boat coming their way that Childs sprang into action.
Robinson said that, according to others on board, Childs jumped into the driver’s seat in hopes of steering it out of the way, but that the oncoming powerboat hit the pontoon boat in the very spot where Childs was sitting.
Robinson said Head was “driving at a high rate of speed coming towards them” and that people on the pontoon boat had tried to wave him off.
The crash happened shortly before 2 a.m. in the hours after those on the pontoon boat got off work at a popular lakeside restaurant, the Fish N Pig.
“The witnesses said they were out … enjoying the evening,” Robinson testified Wednesday, “looking at the moon.”
He said some people on the pontoon boat were thought to have been drinking but prosecutors say there was no indication that Childs was.
Robinson said security cameras at some houses overlooking the water appear to show both boats with their running lights on.
“We can see the incident happen,” the investigator said in court. “We can see the Fountain boat strike the pontoon vessel and ramp over it.”
One passenger, a woman, suffered a serious head injury and was in a hospital for a couple of days. Another person’s shoulder blade was broken.
Head, the Fountain boat’s driver, was not thought to have been seriously hurt. He is an aircraft mechanic who lives in an apartment complex near the lake and has been in the Bibb jail since his Dec. 1 arrest.
Two other men, one of whom was on the boat that Head was driving, have been charged in the case, accused of hindering Head’s apprehension and making false statements to the authorities.
Robinson said investigators believe that Head had been drinking alcohol during the day prior to the crash and in the hours just before midnight at the Fish N Pig.
Robinson said security-camera footage from a convenience store near the west Macon lake showed Head buying alcohol during the day on July 23.
Head, who investigators say left the lake without talking to law enforcement officials, was not located until shortly after daybreak on July 24. Nearly nine hours passed before investigators obtained a blood sample from Head and the results detected no alcohol or drugs, Robinson said.
A high rate of speed
Testimony emerged Wednesday that Head and the two men accused of giving false statements about his whereabouts in the hours after the crash towed the crippled pontoon boat to shore on a third boat and also helped its injured passengers onto shore at Sandy Beach.
Head’s attorney, Robert E. Cabe, questioned Robinson in court Wednesday about a reckless conduct charge that Head also faces.
Robinson said one reason for the charge was that it was dark when the crash happened and at “the rate of speed” Head’s boat was supposedly traveling “your vision is impaired just from it being nighttime.” Investigators do not know how fast the Fountain boat was going, though there is no speed limit on Tobesofkee or on most Georgia lakes.
Cabe, the defense attorney, then asked Robinson if the supposed speed of Head’s boat was based on the “generalized accusations from people who you admit have consumed alcohol that he was driving too fast, correct?”
“Yessir,” the investigator replied.
Robinson, however, went on to say that in the recorded statements of the pontoon boaters, they did not appear to be intoxicated.
The investigator also mentioned an encounter with some fishermen that Head was thought to have had in the minutes before the crash.
The late-night fishermen at the Lower Thomaston Road bridge, which crosses the lake about two miles by water to the west of Sandy Beach, have said that Head “was arguing with” them after Head sped through a no-wake zone at the bridge.
One of the fishermen said he believed that Head “was intoxicated,” Robinson said, adding, “through his actions and his demeanor.”
The investigator also mentioned a possibly crucial piece of evidence that may further implicate Head.
Robinson said that in the moments after the crash, apparently as Head’s boat was sinking and while awaiting a ride to shore, Head used a cellphone to call a friend. The friend did not answer, Robinson said, but the call went to the friend’s voicemail, which the investigator said recorded Head talking in the background to the man who’d been aboard the Fountain boat with him that night.
“Their vessel was sinking at this time,” Robinson said, adding that Head can be heard telling the man with him “that he hopes nobody’s dead over there (on the pontoon boat). … He keeps telling him, ‘I’m in trouble,’ basically because ‘I’m drunk.’”