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Lynn Thornton, 1955-2006

As an investigator for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Lynn Thornton was a peace officer, and her role was to protect California consumers by conducting criminal investigations into dentists and doctors who violated codes, be they professional, business or penal. She had retired a little less than a month before she was killed in a boating accident on Clear Lake.

A longtime friend describes Thornton as "being one of those kinds of people everybody wants to be best friends with." She had a son who was 19 at the time of accident. Thornton's kidney was donated to a nephew, who had gone into kidney failure.

Thornton's estate is being represented by Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy, a law firm with offices in Burlingame, Beverly Hills, New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

We don't know if Bismarck Dinius of Carmichael is young or old, white or black, a saint or a meth addict. But the one thing that we believe for certain is that he's been wrongly accused of vehicular manslaughter, thanks to what seems to be either the gross incompetence and/or corruption on the part of Lake County District Attorney Jon Hopkins and Sgt. Charles Slabaugh of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. See if you don't agree with us, and as a result, if your faith in California law enforcement and legal system isn't rocked.

Dinius' crime? He was sitting at the helm of an all but stationary sailboat, the boat's owner just a few feet away, when a local off-duty deputy sheriff on a powerboat came from almost directly behind, in the black of night, at a speed of between 40 to 55 mph and, without slowing, slammed into the sailboat with tremendous force. The immediate result was severe head trauma that would eventually claim the life of Lynn Thornton, a just-retired 51-year-old female peace officer on the sailboat, the dismasting of the sailboat, and severe damage to both boats. That the joy-riding deputy hasn't been charged - and, in fact, is still working as a deputy sheriff - is an outrage and a terrible indictment of what's supposed to be an apolitical legal system. That the hapless Dinius should be facing years in prison as well as a large fine and restitution for the death of the passenger on the sailboat is inexplicable. If anyone on the sailboat should have been charged - and they shouldn't -- it was the owner, who was right there.

The case we're referring to, of course, is the one that took place on Clear Lake on the evening of April 26, 2006. The sailboat involved was the O'Day 27 sailboat Beats Working II, owned by Mark Weber of Willows, with passengers Lynn Thornton, also of Willows, who was Weber's fianceé, and Henry Dominguez and Zina Dotti, both of Santa Rosa. Henry and Zina were on the boat because they'd met the gregarious Thornton during a golf outing the day before. Weber was a longtime sailor, and Thornton had taken to the sport after meeting Weber about five years ago. In fact, the two were planning a sailing trip to Santa Barbara that summer.

The Baja 24, powered by a 385-hp Mercruiser V-8, was owned by Russell Perdock of Clear Lake, one of the most senior members of the Lake County Sheriff's Department. His two passengers were friend Jim Walker of El Dorado Hills, and Walker's 14-year-old daughter.

April 26 was a normal enough day for everyone. In the morning, Perdock, a den leader, took a group of 10 Webelos on a three-mile hike, and from 5 to 6:30 p.m., celebrated his son's birthday at a local pizza parlor. As for the folks on the O'Day 27, they'd competed in the Konocti Half Cup Race, taking second place in division. As it was a nice night, the folks on the O'Day stayed on the lake, drifting around and enjoying some cocktails.

About 9 p.m., Perdock asked Walker and his daughter if they wanted to take a run on his powerboat. They said yes. Perdock had just finished getting the boat right, and would be taking her out for the first time that season.

As for what happened after that, Perdock testified to Sacramento County Sheriff Investigator Charles Slabaugh, by the time they got going, it was completely dark and there was no moon out. Nonetheless, he admits to bringing his boat up to a speed of 40 to 45 mph. (The two witnesses cited by the investigator both said that Perdock was going too fast for the conditions, and one estimated his speed at 50 to 55 mph.) After going at this speed for a minute or two, the collision occured. "I didn't see the boat, sails or any lights," Perdock said. "It was just there."

In a couple of seemingly very damning statements, Perdock said, "I feel very comfortable when I'm driving my boat on the lake at night. That's why I don't believe the speed at which I was going was unsafe. It was not fast. I have done that more times than I could count. I was in an open part of the lake and saw no danger."

While he couldn't see any danger - because it was black, because his eyes were no doubt watering at that speed - he had every reason to believe it could be out there. "I have been out on the lake during the darkness in the past and have seen boats with no lights on, so I watch for them."

In other words, he knew there very likely were unlit boats on the lake at night yet, despite the fact visibility was practically nil, he felt that 40 to 45 mph - if not 55 mph - was not "unsafe". Where was his lawyer when he was saying incriminating stuff like that?

How does Perdock watch our for unlit boats? "I can use the lighting of the object, like Richmond Park, to help me see other boats or objects on the water that may not be lighted. The lights silhouette the object and I can avoid it."

Nonesense. If Perdock is coming up from behind on another vessel - as he, in fact, was doing - all he would be able to see is the small white stern light. The last thing he'd want to do is try to find a stern light among brighter background lights. If anything, he'd want to head toward blackness, where a small stern light would be most evident. But Perdock claimed that the background lights would allow him to see the silhouette of unlit boats against the background lights. To a very limited sense that's possible, but at up to 55 mph on a black night?

Was the sailboat showing her running lights, as required by law? Witnesses have given conflicting reports. It's also been reported that a cabin light was on, which would almost certainly have made the boat more visible than just the stern light.

Perdock ended his statement by saying the whole tragedy could have been avoided "if they'd flicked on a lighter or something." Or maybe if he'd been traveling at a safe speed for the conditions, which we figure would have been about 5 to 10 mph.

So how does Dinius fit into all this? In the crowded cockpit of the 27-footer, he happened to be the guy holding onto the tiller at the time of impact. And he had a blood alcohol level of .12, which is above the legal limit of .08. For what it's worth, the legal limit in California used to be .15, was lowered to .10, and is currently .08. Weber, the boat's owner, who was stepping down into the cabin at the time of the impact, was found to have a blood alcohol level of .18.

Based on the self-incriminating testimony of Deputy Perdock, what did Sacramento County Sheriff's Investigator Slabaugh recommend? That Dinius - not Perdock - be charged with vehicular manslaughter, and that Weber be charged with manslaughter. As for Perdock, who Investigator Slabaugh was nice enough to travel all the way to the Lake County Sheriff's Office to interview, Slabaugh recommended no charges. Many people are outraged, not only because Perdock was not charged, but because he's still a deputy sheriff.

But D.A. Hopkins didn't follow the recommendations of Investigator Slabaugh, instead just filed charges against Dinius. We're thinking that he's using a 'gotcha' strategy. For under Chapter 5, Article 1 and section 651 of the California Boating Law, the 'operator of a vessel' is defined as the "person on board is steering the vessel while underway." As such, Dinius, because he was at the helm and therefore the operator, and because his blood level was above .08, was boating under the influence, is easy prey for at least a conviction of driving under the influence.

There's a couple of things wrong with this. First, if you move waaaaay down through the California Boating Law, on page 247 to be exact, you'll find that 'operator' is also defined as "the person who operates or who has charge of the navigation or use of the vessel." This is the definition we think most mariners would concur with, and would mean Weber, not Dinius, might have been responsible in some small way.

But why the hell didn't the D.A. charge Perdock with vehicular manslaughter as a result of operating a boat recklessly? His exlanation/excuse to Latitude's LaDonna Bubak was, "It's impossible to prove the speed of the motorboat," and "We can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his speed was the cause of the accident."

Bullshit! Perdock admitted that he was traveling at 40 mph or more - which is 66 feet per second. Witnesses describe him as travelling at 55 mph, which is 84 feet per second. If you're a D.A. and you can't convince a jury that traveling at 84 feet per second across a pitch black lake known for unlit boats isn't reckless, you need to resign. Indeed, we think that D.A. Hopkins needs to turn the entire case over to the California District Attorney for complete investigation and prosecution, then resign. By the way, the statute of limitations that would apply to Perdock goes on for almost two more years. We also call on Deputy Perdock to resign. His continued presence is an outrage to the community he supposedly protects and serves.

What's going to happen now? There's no way in hell a 12 person jury is going to buy the D.A.'s charge that Dinius was the proximate cause of Thornton's death. It's so ridiculous we can't even imagine it going to court. Meanwhile, there are civil suits flying all over place, with everybody suing everybody else. It's a civil suit free-for-all.

But do you want to be disgusted one last time? Remember the proverbial little boy who murdered his parents and then begged the court for mercy because he was an orphan? Taking a page from that book, it's our understanding that Perdock has filed suit against Weber, blaming him for the accident, claiming that it resulted in him being divorced, suffering emotional distress and all the usual legal blather.

As angry as we are about the death of Thornton and the handling of this case, there's also the tragedy of Deputy Perdock to be considered. We may be wrong, but our intuition is that he's actually probably a pretty good guy. He was an Eagle Scout as a kid, takes the local kids for hikes, was there for his son's birthday, and served the community as a deputy. We might be the last person on earth who believes this, but we think the vast majority of people in law enforcement are pretty good people trying to do their best. We suspect that Perdock's a good guy who for a few seconds became reckless in pursuit of a minor endorphine rush. Yeah, he says he even disconnected the exhaust just before the accident so his boat would be real loud. And that pursuit of endorphins resulted in a tragic accident and the death of a wonderful woman. Suddenly, he became a desperate man who had to turn his fate over to a lawyer, who has to employ any and every strategy to get him off - even if it means taking the offensive by claiming he was the victim. To the best of our knowledge, Perdock hasn't even been able to say he's sorry. It can't be easy.

We've said it a million times - and Deputy Perdock should have known this better than anyone - speed kills. Please, be safe out there, on the water, on the roads - everywhere.

- latitude / rs

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