Reporting from San Diego — The Coast Guard has charged four enlisted members with criminal offenses ranging from involuntary manslaughter to dereliction of duty in the fatal collision between their vessel and a civilian boat in San Diego Bay during the annual Parade of Lights just days before Christmas, authorities said Thursday.
The event is a highlight of the holiday season in San Diego, with hundreds of pleasure boats, decorated with bright lights, cruising slowly through the bay from Point Loma to Coronado.
Three families were on a 24-foot Sea Ray when it was struck by a 33-foot Coast Guard craft allegedly skimming through the water at a high rate of speed the night of Dec. 20.
Eight-year-old Anthony DeWeese from the Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood of San Diego was killed and five members of the three families were injured. The boy died of "blunt force trauma," according to the county medical examiner.
Witnesses alleged that the Coast Guard vessel was speeding recklessly. The Coast Guard initially said its vessel was rushing to help a stranded boat.
In a statement from its Alameda, Calif., headquarters, the Coast Guard said that no details of its investigation would be released "to protect the rights of the accused, and out of respect for the rights and privacy of everyone affected by the tragic collision."
The charges allege that the Coast Guard craft was traveling too fast and that the four crew members failed to provide lookouts to warn the coxswain — who pilots the boat — of an imminent collision. The four remain on active duty in San Diego but have been removed from boat operations, officials said.
--Petty Officer Paul Ramos, the boat coxswain, who is accused of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, negligence and dereliction of duty.
--Petty Officer Ian Howell, who is accused of negligent homicide, aggravated assault, negligence leading to hazards and dereliction of duty.
--Petty Officer Brittany Rasmussen, who is accused of negligent homicide, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty.
--Petty Officer Lavelle M. Teague, who is accused of dereliction of duty.
Involuntary manslaughter can carry a 10-year prison sentence. The other charges carry lesser sentences.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the next step is an Article 32 hearing, much like a civilian preliminary hearing or grand jury investigation. The convening authority is Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo, commander of the 11th Coast Guard District.
No date has been set for the Article 32 hearing. Under military justice, a hearing officer, after taking testimony at the Article 32, recommends to the convening authority whether the case should proceed to court-martial or be handled in a different manner. The convening authority is not bound by that recommendation.
The civilian families have filed a civil lawsuit alleging negligence by the Coast Guard.
"These charges indicate the Coast Guard is taking the matter seriously, as they should, and they've done a professional investigation," said Michael Neil, an attorney for the DeWeese family in that suit.
Beyond the conduct of the four petty officers, Neil said, there are issues of why this particular Coast Guard boat was operating in a congested setting.
"There were severe problems with that boat and the visibility it affords the coxswain," Neil said.
The DeWeese family, he said, is "coping as well as can be expected."
Separate from the criminal charges detailed by the Coast Guard, the collision is being investigated by the San Diego Harbor Patrol and National Transportation Safety Board.
The Article 32 hearing will be held in Alameda, officials said. If there is a court-martial, it is tentatively set for San Diego.