Boat crash report casts doubt on who was driving

SANDUSKY "My driver is in the water. I need help." Kevin Lake told a 911 op
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010



"My driver is in the water. I need help."

Kevin Lake told a 911 operator this at 12:39 a.m. June 15, immediately after a boat crash that killed Lake's friend Ben Miller.

Of all the haunting words captured on 911 tapes from the incident, this statement stands out because authorities allege Lake was lying.

Listen to the 911 calls made that night in this June 17 article, "Missing boater's body found in Sandusky Bay."

The person in the water -- Miller, 21, of Berlin Heights -- was not piloting the boat at the time of the crash, concludes the Ohio Division of Watercraft's final report released Friday. The evidence instead suggests that Lake, 24, of Norwalk was in the driver's seat when the crash occurred.

Lake's attorney, Troy Wisehart, disputes the report's findings.

"I understand there's some conclusions in there that we don't agree with," he said. "When an accident occurs, anything can happen. You cannot predict how somebody's going to fly or what position they were in."

The 138-page document released by the Ottawa County prosecutor sheds light on what transpired when Lake's boat collided with Phil Steinle's boat in Sandusky Bay that dark night.

A night on the town

It was about 70 degrees in Sandusky on June 14 -- perfect tank top weather. Photographs of Miller, Lake and their girlfriends -- Emily Jones, 28, of Norwalk and Ashley Franklin, 23, of Huron -- at the Phil Vassar concert show the group smiling and raising drinks to the camera.

The group arrived at the Saturday show at Lyman Harbor at about 7 p.m., and didn't leave until about 11 p.m., according to witness statements. The group grew hungry and headed to McDonald's in Lake's 21-foot Sea Ray.

Lake drove the boat to the marina -- everyone agrees on this. He docked and the group ate outside the fast food restaurant.

Sandusky police Officer Erik Mohr was working an extra duty detail and remembers seeing them at McDonald's. He had a friendly chat with the group and later said he could tell they had been drinking. He was not sure if any were over the limit, the report states.

At about midnight, the couples climbed back into the Sea Ray to return to Lyman Harbor. Lake told Division of Watercraft investigator John Johnston that Miller was driving the boat.

"I asked why was Miller driving the boat. Lake said that they (Miller and Lake) would switch off and take turns driving ... Lake said that he, Lake, had backed out ... then Miller took over," states Johnston's narrative report.

Also out on the water that night was local auto dealer Steinle, 53, of Sandusky and his girlfriend, Rachel Forster, 28, of Fremont.

The couple was aboard Steinle's 41-foot Formula boat after spending the evening in downtown Sandusky at Ohio Bike Week events. The pair was on their way to Venetian Marina when they were stopped at 11:42 p.m. by the U.S. Coast Guard for a running light violation. After fixing the light Steinle and Forster resumed their journey to the marina.

The crash and its aftermath

The Sea Ray departed from the marina next to McDonald's at 12:12 a.m. Investigators know this because they were able to chart the Sea Ray's precise path that night using the vessel's GPS system.

Traveling at 30 mph, the Sea Ray went under the bridge at the Cedar Point Causeway at 12:18 a.m. About a minute later, the Sea Ray struck the Formula boat about 210 yards from Lyman Harbor. Investigators estimate that the Formula was traveling at 27 mph.

According to the crash description, the bow of the Sea Ray smashed into the port -- or left -- side of the Formula. Photographs taken of the Sea Ray show the starboard -- or right -- side of the vessel was crushed, shortening its bow by a foot.

The damage to the Formula was extensive. A 12-foot-long gaping hole reached from just below the rub rail to near the boat's underside.

When the boats collided, the force of the impact threw Miller and Jones off the starboard side.

Franklin, who was bent over either reaching into her bag or putting on flip-flops, was flung into the boat's cabin, breaking her jaw, collarbone, femur, pelvis and ribs, states an injury report. Four of her bottom teeth were also knocked out and she suffered memory loss, a blind spot and nerve damage. She was hospitalized for weeks.

"Franklin was thrown from her seat and into the cuddy cabin, where her body was reportedly thrown halfway through the opening between the starboard front quarter bulkhead and the forward deck of the Sea Ray," reads a Sandusky police report.

After going overboard, Jones told authorities she saw the boat and swam back to it. She and Lake desperately called out for Miller. They called 911 and asked for help.

Lake would later need 16 stitches to his cheek.

After being hit, Steinle and Forster did not wait around. Blood gushed out of Forster's leg and Steinle told her "we are getting you to the hospital right now," Forster said in her witness statement.

The Formula was almost completely swamped with water by the time it reached the marina. Steinle called 911 as he drove Forster to the hospital from the marina.

Miller's body was found June 16 during a sweep of Sandusky Bay. An autopsy determined he died from multiple blunt trauma to his chest and abdomen.

He had six broken ribs on his left side, a torn spleen and a ruptured stomach. The watercraft report determined Miller had to be facing backward and likely struck the port side of the Formula.

Miller's blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent. That level, however, might not reflect the actual amount of alcohol he consumed.

"With decomposition, it's possible that some of that ethanol was manufactured by bacteria," said Lucas County Coroner's Office chief toxicologist Robert Forney.

Miller's blood-alcohol level could have been as low as 0.05 percent, Forney estimated.

The investigation concluded that the operator of the Sea Ray should have yielded to the Formula, since it had the right of way.

"The operator concentrating on the entrance to Lyman Harbor or GPS screen, looking into background lights, having consumed alcohol, and traveling at 30 mph with three other people onboard did not see the Formula that was on his starboard," the summary states.

Was Kevin Lake driving?

Using his cell phone, Lake called 911 to tell emergency responders he was in a boat crash and his "driver" was missing.

But a June 27 interview with Jones -- Miller's girlfriend of two months -- casts doubt on Lake's version of events, specifically the part where he claimed Miller was operating the boat.

"I told her that Kevin Lake told me that Ben started driving right after Kevin pulled the boat out ... Emily began to cry and shook her head 'no,'" Johnston wrote in his narrative.

Jones told authorities that Miller did not drive at all that night. She also denied overhearing a conversation between Miller and Lake that Lake's long-time girlfriend, Franklin, claims took place.

"I remember that when we got on the boat, Kevin was driving. And we were getting closer to the bridge, and I remember him asking, 'Hey Ben, do you want to switch so I can get the boat ready for docking?'" Franklin told authorities during an interview.

Lake's injuries did not match up with his claim that Miller was driving, the investigation concluded. Lake had a gash under his right eye and bruising along his right side. He also was never ejected from the boat.

"Lakes injuries match to being in the operator's seat or being in the operator's station," the report states. "Lake is prevented from being ejected because he is 'tucked' into the corner of the operator's station and is hanging onto the helm."

In a statement she wrote June 15, Jones states the last thing she remembers, Miller was not in a position to operate the boat.

"Kevin slowed the boat down and we went under the bridge, and then began to pick up speed after we had gone under it, at that time Ben stood up and headed forward," she wrote. "I'm not sure why he went forward. He knew I was cold and I thought he was getting a blanket. The next thing I knew I was ... under the water and trying to find my way to the top."

Lake also was allegedly interested in what Jones told investigators. According to the investigator's narrative, Lake hounded Jones for information.

"Emily Jones' mother then told us that Kevin Lake called Emily the next day and asked Emily what she told the detectives. Kevin said to her that 'Ben was driving.' Her mother was concerned because Lake was calling all the time and 'hovering' over Emily," the narrative states.

Alcohol a factor?

Whoever was piloting the Sea Ray that night might have had more drinks than the legal limit allows. Sandusky police Officer Jim Ommert said in his report of the crash that both Jones and Lake had "an odor of intoxicants about their persons."

Lake told authorities he had several beers. As part of its criminal investigation, the Division of Watercraft requested from Firelands Regional Medical Center the results of Lake's blood test.

A hand-written note on the request form reads: "Firelands called. No test on Lake."

The author of that note could not be confirmed Friday.

It remains unclear what, if any, charges would be filed in this case. Mulligan is handling the case because Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter said he knew both parties involved.

Mulligan had no comment on Friday, but said before that criminal charges may be forthcoming.

Wisehart, however, said the investigation's outcome is way off base.

"I don't believe there's any way they can put Kevin behind the wheel," Wisehart said. "I hope the state takes a longer look at the facts before they charge somebody. I think charging Kevin would compound the tragedy here. He lost his best friend and his girlfriend was severely injured."

Related articles:

June 15, 2008

WEB UPDATE: Berling Heights man missing after boat crash

June 17, 2008

Missing boater's body found in Sandusky Bay

June 27, 2008

Boater's family sues over death

Sept. 24, 2008

Was Ben Miller operating boat involved in June collision that killed him?