Memories still haunt after charges dropped El Toro II captain lives through anguish, anger each day

September 29, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

RIDGE -- The eyes of Joseph C. Lore welled up with tears yesterday as he talked about the crewman who died when his boat, the El Toro II, went down in a storm in 1993. But they flashed with anger when he talked about his indictment and trial on manslaughter charges.

The criminal charges placed him and his family in an unwelcome spotlight. He was ostracized by the neighbors in this rural community and a bitter twist was added to an accident that continues to haunt him, he said.

"I don't know if you'd call it nightmares, but it comes back to me every day of my life. For two years, it's been a misery to me," said Mr. Lore, who continues to operate his charter business, Chesapeake Bay Fishing Parties, from a marina on St. Jerome Creek.

Mr. Lore, 54, and his son, Clayton Lore, 32, were cleared of manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges Wednesday halfway through their trial by a St. Mary's County judge, who said the prosecution failed to prove its case.

The 58-foot charter fishing boat went down Dec. 5, 1993, about four miles off Point Lookout. Edgar Philips, the 19-year-old crewman from Piney Point, Robert B. Shipe, 45, of Mechanicsville and Horace I. Smith, 64, of Washington, died of hypothermia.

"Edgar Philips was one of the nicest people who ever lived and certainly one of the nicest who worked for me," Mr. Lore said, his voice choked with emotion.

As they paddled side by side in 50 degree waters clutching the life ring, Mr. Philips was a calming influence, Mr. Lore said.

"He kept saying, 'Are you all right, Are you all right?' He asked me that three times. I said I was, but I knew I wasn't," Mr. Lore said, his voice trembling.

He said the criminal case against him began building when press reports focused on the safety deficiencies federal inspectors found on the El Toro II.

The boat passed a Coast Guard inspection in April, 1993 but a CIGNA insurance inspector said in a report written three days before the accident that the boat was unsuitable to carry passengers because of various safety defects.

"The public opinion was, everybody believed we were murderers or criminals and everything else, right from the start," he said.

The Lores were indicted Dec. 9, 1994 by a St. Mary's County grand jury, a little more than a year after the accident and after the National Transportation Safety Board, the Maryland Natural Resources police and the Coast Guard decided there wasn't enough evidence to support criminal charges.

Mr. Lore is convinced St. Mary's County State's Attorney Walter B. Dorsey was pressured into seeking the indictments by the victims' families and local press.

Mr. Dorsey denied the allegation.

He said that the grand jury indicted the Lores only after witnesses complained that the boat was unseaworthy.

"Three people died here and there was evidence of negligence," Mr. Dorsey said. "Look at the criticism our office would've sustained if we had not presented it to the grand jury. People would've said we swept it under the rug."

Mr. Lore said he still is convinced he and his son acted reasonably on the day of the accident. They waited to turn back, even though rain was falling and the wind had picked up, because several of the 20 passengers continued to fish.

In the minutes before the boat sank, he tried desperately to radio for help, sending out repeated distress calls that the boat's engine had died and that they were caught in rough seas.

"It sank really fast, in a matter of minutes," he said.

Mr. Lore said he sucked in water as he struggled to hold on to a life raft for 90 minutes before rescue helicopters arrived, an ordeal that left him "as stiff as a board" when he was plucked from the sea. He spent four days in St. Mary's Hospital in Leonardtown recovering.

He said many boat captains have told him since the accident that he and his son should not have abandoned ship.

But he said they were directed to abandon the El Toro II by the Coast Guard, and that he knew the boat was doomed when water washed over the decks and waves smashed against the wooden cabin, cracking it as they hit.

El Toro II was salvaged and sold to a Berlin fisherman, who is using it to catch sea bass and swordfish off Ocean City under the name Scooch Too.

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