Homicide-by-boating trial to begin in double-fatality

Boating while intoxicated, re-creation of Lake Murray accident at issue in wreck that killed 2 young women

03/04/2012 12:00 AM

03/04/2012 9:00 AM

An Irmo boater charged in the 2010 deaths of two women in a horrific watercraft collision on Lake Murray goes on trial Monday.

Steven Kranendonk is accused of driving a boat while intoxicated and colliding with another boat carrying Kelli Bullard of Lexington and Amber Golden of the Huntsville, Ala., area. The two women were killed and their boyfriends were injured in the crash.

Kranendonk’s fate will be decided by a Richland County jury shortly before he celebrates his 27th birthday.

The collision is one of two with fatalities that occurred minutes apart on the night of May 1, 2010, spurring a wave of concern about safety on the waters of Lake Murray after dark.

The parents of Bullard, 25, and Golden, 24, still grieve nearly two years after the crash.

“It is a tragedy of great magnitude for all families and persons affected by it,” said Jonathan Harvey, the lawyer for Kranendonk, who faces more charges on top of his initial charge of homicide while boating intoxicated.

Tests taken a few hours after the crash showed Kranendonk’s blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent, court records say. That is above the level of 0.08 percent that is considered legally impaired in South Carolina.

In November, prosecutors added three charges of reckless homicide and causing injury while operating a watercraft against Kranendonk.

The new charges are a fallback in case problems develop with the ones involving intoxication, some legal experts say.

“It sounds like they’re hedging their bets,” said Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who is experienced in handling drunken-boating allegations as a former-prosecutor-turned-criminal-defense lawyer but who is not involved in this case. “It’s a back-up position.”

Kranendonk’s legal team may try to pick apart the way the blood test that measures intoxication was administered to raise doubt about its accuracy, he said.

“There are all kinds of technical hoops you’ve got to jump through” in trying to prove or disprove intoxication, Harpootlian said.

A second line of defense also may come up.

Defense attorney Harvey asked authorities Feb. 22 for a copy of an animated re-creation of the crash – novel in South Carolina for a boat collision – that was prepared by state troopers, who normally do such re-creations for road accidents, court records show.

That indicates Kranendonk’s legal team may suggest the women and their boyfriends were partly at fault for the crash in the way their boat was operated, other lawyers said.

The boat on which the four were cruising appeared on the radar of Kranendonk’s vessel and he saw its lights – about 100 yards away – before striking it, throwing three occupants into the lake, investigators said in a hearing in 2010.

Golden’s parents plan to attend the trial, said their lawyer, Trey Riley.

It is a trial the victims’ families have awaited.

“Please don’t let the death of Amber Golden and Kelli Bullard go unforgotten,” Joanna Christofoli, mother of Golden’s fiancé, who was injured in the crash, said in an email to The State last week.

Kranendonk’s family paid the families of the women more than $245,000 each in a civil settlement last fall. But Kranendonk did not admit he is at fault for their deaths in agreeing to those payments.

The crash was the first of two fatal late-night collisions minutes apart between Susie Ebert and Flotilla islands in a heavily traveled part of the northeast corner of Lake Murray that night. Altogether, four people were killed.

In the other crash, Steven Miller of Irmo faces homicide while under the influence of alcohol and marijuana charges in connection with the deaths of friends Matthew Howk of Columbia and Randall Carter of Irmo.

Miller drove a boat that collided with another driven by David Porth of the Gilbert area, who was charged with boating under the influence.

Relatives of Howk and Carter have called it a tragedy among friends.

Charges against both Miller and Porth are pending, records show.

The pair of collisions spawned a push for speed limits after sunset and mandatory training for boaters, but momentum for the changes faded.

Still, the crashes left a legacy.

The Lake Murray Association plans to launch a new campaign this spring with signs at marinas and landings urging boaters to slow down, stay sober and obey the rules of navigation.

Outrage over the collisions made many boaters more safety-conscious, said Joy Downs of Ballentine, executive director of the organization of boaters and homeowners.

“Things have quieted down,” she said. “It’s made everybody more aware.”

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