Charges dismissed in bay sinking Manslaughter case against crew is too weak, judge rules

$20 million civil suit pending

Victims' families stunned and angered by El Toro decision

September 28, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

LEONARDTOWN -- In an abrupt ending to the criminal case against the operators of the ill-fated El Toro II charter boat, a St. Mary's judge yesterday dismissed manslaughter charges against the boat's skipper and his son.

Judge John Hanson Briscoe said the state's effort to prove its case in the 1993 sinking, in which three people died in a Chesapeake Bay storm, was too weak to even require a defense.

Judge Briscoe gave a directed verdict to Joseph C. Lore II, 54, and Clayton S. Lore, 32, ruling that the prosecutor did not prove the men knew of defects that caused the fishing boat to sink.

The decision stunned and angered the victims' families, prompting the daughter of one to bolt from the courtroom in tears.

"I just can't believe this. It just boggles the mind that they could do something like this and get away with it," said Betty Philips, whose son died in the accident.

Crewman Eddie Philips, 19, of Piney Point, and passengers Robert B. Shipe, 45, of Mechanicsville, and Horace I. Smith, 64, of Washington, died of hypothermia after being pulled from 54-degree waters off Point Lookout when the El Toro went down on Dec. 5, 1993.

If convicted of manslaughter and reckless endangerment, the Lores could have received terms totaling 15 years in prison.

But Judge Briscoe, in a 65-minute explanation at the close of the state's case, said that in order to be convicted, "a defendant has to know the risk was there, and there is no evidence of that."

The Lores' lawyer, Julian J. Izydore, said the judge properly focused on the cause of the accident -- three planks that came loose from the boat's hull -- and testimony from prosecution experts that showed the Lores had no way of knowing the planks were loose.

Harry L. Langley, a marine safety expert, testified that the 5-inch spikes that bound the planks to the hull had been dissolved by a "stray current" of electricity that ran from faulty wires into a pool of water on the planks.

He said the defect was not visible until the boat was examined in dry dock a week after the accident.

Joseph Lore said he and his son did nothing wrong in taking the 58-foot boat out that day. He said he feels sorry for the victims and their families. "It's something that you never get off your mind and you know you'll live with forever."

Mr. Lore said he and his son were only indicted because the victims' families, the local press and community members pressured St. Mary's State's Attorney Walter B. Dorsey.

Robert H. Harvey Jr., a Calvert County lawyer assigned to prosecute the case, said it was difficult to dispute the verdict and that in some ways the case was a success. "This case was not brought to punish the Lores," he said. "It was to let people know that mistakes were made. They shouldn't have been made, and they shouldn't be made again."

After the verdict, victims' relatives stood stunned outside the courthouse. Edward Shipe of Riverdale, whose brother was killed in the accident, said he believed the judge felt pressure from the county's boating community and others backing the Lores.

The victims' families filed a $20 million negligence suit July 10 in -- U.S. District Court in Baltimore against the boat's owners, the Coast Guard and an insurance company. Today's ruling has no effect on the pending civil case.

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