Missing boater's body found in Sandusky Bay

SANDUSKY "Yeah, I have somebody in the water. I'm on the boat in front of Lyman Harbor. Quick. ... I
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

"Yeah, I have somebody in the water. I'm on the boat in front of Lyman Harbor. Quick. ... I can't find somebody. Someone hit me."

Kevin Lake gasped these words into his cell phone while waiting for help to arrive.

He was speaking to police dispatch a little after 12:30 a.m. Sunday while stranded on his boat in Sandusky Bay with two of his friends.

He spoke frantically because his friend Ben Miller -- the boat operator -- was missing, and Lake's girlfriend, Ashley Franklin, 23, of Huron was badly hurt.

"Hurry," Lake told dispatch. "Stay with me baby. ... Ashley, stay awake baby."

Rescuers took Franklin to Firelands Regional Medical Center. She was later taken by medical helicopter to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, where she remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit.

Ben Miller is no longer missing. Authorities found the body of the 21-year-old Berlin Heights man at 2:50 p.m. Monday. He was thrown overboard in a boat crash early Sunday morning on Sandusky Bay.

Miller had been missing since the 21-foot Sea Ray he was piloting collided with a 41-foot Formula boat -- known as a cigarette boat -- just after midnight Sunday morning.

The collision occurred between Lyman Harbor and Venetian Marina. The U.S. Coast Guard incorrectly identified the Sea Ray as a Bayliner on Sunday.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Watercraft continued its investigation Monday into what caused the accident. The two boats involved are locked up at Lake Erie Towing and are being held as evidence.

John Wisse, spokesman with the Division of Watercraft, said there was extensive damage to the mid-ship port side of the Formula boat, and substantial damage to the bow of the Sea Ray.

"That is a pretty strong indication that the Sea Ray and the Formula were crossing paths and ... it sounded like me that it was the Sea Ray that hit the Formula, in the description of the damage that was made to me," Wisse said.

The Sea Ray -- which carried Miller, his friend and boat owner Lake, 23, of Norwalk and their girlfriends, Franklin and Emily Jones, 27, of Norwalk -- was headed to Lyman Harbor when the boats collided, said Division of Watercraft investigator John Johnston. The Formula was operated by local auto dealer Phil Steinle, 53, and carried his girlfriend, Rachel Forester, 28, of Fremont. They were heading toward Venetian Marina, authorities said.

Passengers aboard both boats told authorities they never heard or saw the other boat. Johnston estimates both boats were traveling at speeds greater than 20 mph at the time of impact.

After the boats struck, the Sea Ray stayed out in the bay. Steinle and Forester went to Venetian Marina.

"After collision, they said they didn't see anybody around (and) they didn't hear anything. They knew they were involved in an accident," Johnston said.

Steinle drove Forester to the hospital, where she received stitches for an injury to her left leg.

Franklin was taken to St. Vincent for head trauma.

None of the passengers on either boat was wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident, according to the Division of Watercraft.

Miller's family members were upset the other boat left the crash scene, but authorities said it is common for two boats to hit and then head to separate marinas. The boat owners often try to sort things out after seeking safety.

Watercraft law is different from laws governing automobile accidents.

Accidents that occur between two boats require boat operators to stay at the scene and exchange information only if doing so does not pose any serious danger.

The crash ripped a 12-foot hole in the middle of Formula, from underneath the waterline to the rub-rail. Staying out in the bay could have put Steinle and his passenger in jeopardy, Johnston said.

"If they stayed out there much longer than they did -- the boat basically sunk at the dock -- when the boat goes down, he and his passenger are both in the water, too," Johnston said. "It's not like a car accident where you get out and walk away. You're on the water."

Wisse said Steinle was lucky to get his boat to harbor in one piece.

"Most boating accidents aren't this severe. You've got a guy, Steinle, whose side of his boat was ripped wide open and taking on water. He was in imminent danger of sinking and took action to get his boat and his passenger to safety at the nearest point they could do that," Wisse said.

The Formula boat sank when it reached the marina.

The police audio tapes show that Steinle and his passenger did call 911 shortly after the collision. The first call into police dispatch came at 12:30 a.m. and was from Forester, who was panicked.

"We had an accident. Oh my God, my leg is bleeding. We are at the Venetian Marina ... our boat is sinking," Forester said.

Steinle grabbed the phone and told police dispatch he was taking her to the hospital. En route, he called 911 again and told them about the other boat.

"Hello, we just called about the boating accident. There was another boat. Could you send somebody on out to make sure those people are OK?" Steinle said.

When asked if he was involved in the accident, Steinle responded, "Yes ma'am, I'm taking my girlfriend to the hospital. She's got a hole as big as a fist in her leg, and she's passing out."

Considering that it was dark, Johnston said he is not surprised people aboard the two boats could not locate each other after the crash. The boats could have drifted apart by the time occupants even figured out what happened. And the small running lights on the boats can be hard to distinguish against lights from Cedar Point and the marinas.

Wisse said speculation that this incident was a "hit 'n skip" is dead wrong.

"(Some people) were trying to put it on Steinle, and that is absolutely not the case, whatsoever," Wisse said.

Authorities have not ruled out operator inattention, speed or alcohol as a cause of the accident. They did not believe wind or water conditions played a role.

While Steinle was never tested for alcohol in his system, his boat was boarded and inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard minutes before the crash. One of his lights had a problem that was corrected on the spot, Johnston said.

Miller's recovered body will undergo toxicology tests.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources in Columbus does not have a record of Miller ever owning a boating education card. The law is that anyone born after Jan. 1, 1982, must complete an education course before operating a watercraft of greater than 10 horsepower.

"According to our records, he did not have any completion of any boater safety class that we're aware of," Wisse said. "It doesn't mean he didn't complete something, somewhere, but we don't have a record of it."