Yacht captain gets probation in death of Stonington fisherman
A New Jersey yacht captain has been sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $1,800 of restitution after pleading guilty to colliding with a small fishing boat off Westerly in 2015, killing its captain, 81-year-old Walter Krupinski of Stonington.
In sentencing documents, the attorney for Cooper Bacon disputed the findings of a Coast Guard investigation which found he was at fault for Krupinski’s death but said Bacon pleaded guilty to manslaughter “to avoid protracting the pain of this accident any further for both Mr. Krupinski’s family and his own.”
As part of the sentencing agreement, Bacon surrendered his Coast Guard 100-ton merchant mariner’s certificate, agreed not to work as a captain for hire and is limited to operating a small personally-owned boat.
“The proposed sentence is harsh but fair,” his attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Olin Thompson, wrote in a memorandum for the Jan. 17 sentencing.
Krupinski’s wife, Peggy, said Tuesday that she did not feel the probation and the reimbursement of the money she had to spend to dispose of the damaged boat, was enough of a sentence.
“To me, he got off pretty easy,” she said.
Peggy Krupinski often accompanied her husband of 55 years on his fishing trips.
“I can’t imagine what he thought when he was about to be hit,” she said.
“Wally was a great guy. I just miss him,” she said. “I’ve got some great memories of him. That’s what keeps me going.”
Bacon, 79, of Cape May, N.J., also had been found guilty in 2017 on charges by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management that he violated three navigation rules: improper overtaking, failure to maintain a proper lookout and failure to take proper action to avoid a collision. He was fined $300 in that case.
Peggy Krupinski said a lawsuit she filed against the yacht company has been settled to her satisfaction but she could not discuss its details due to a confidentiality agreement.
The crash occurred about 9:56 a.m. on Sept. 22, 2015, in good weather and choppy seas in a marked channel just off Napatree Point. That’s when a brand new, $1.75 million Princess 60-foot yacht being piloted by Bacon, an experienced captain, struck the 23-foot center console boat operated by Krupinski, a longtime fisherman and lobsterman who was very familiar with the waters off Napatree. Krupinski’s boat was named the Peggy K. after his wife.
According to the 36-page sentencing memorandum filed by the U.S Attorney’s Office in Providence, Bacon had been hired to deliver the luxury motor yacht, which had state-of-the art communications, navigation and radar systems, from the Princess Yacht America facility in New Jersey to boat shows in Newport, R.I., and Norwalk, which is where the yacht was headed at the time of the collision. He had delivered numerous vessels in the past for Princess Yachts.
Bacon’s first mate for the trip was William Noe, 73, also of Cape May, N.J., who had accompanied him on previous yacht deliveries. The memo states Noe had no command responsibility and was not assigned to be a lookout or be at the helm at the time of the collision.
The Coast Guard investigation found that just prior to the collision, Noe had gone to the bathroom, leaving Bacon at the helm with the boat's course being directed by autopilot. From eight to three seconds before impact, the boat’s speed increased from 21 to 31 knots. Then there was a small course change likely caused by the impact. Bacon’s speed then dropped to 6 knots and he made a turn of greater than 180 degrees back to what remained of the Peggy K.
Noe was in the galley reaching for an apple when the crash, which he described as violent and frightening, occurred. He said he heard Bacon say, “Oh no! What did we hit? A buoy?" Noe said he then heard an object pass under the yacht’s hull, scraping as it went along. Noe then ran to the back of the boat and saw the underside of a small boat surface behind the yacht. He yelled to Bacon, “We hit a boat. We ran over a boat.”
The memo also criticized Bacon for trying to use his cellphone instead of his VHF marine radio to call the Coast Guard, delaying the reporting of the collision while he and Noe tried to right the capsized Peggy K, struggled with the radio, searched for a phone number for the local Coast Guard station and then called the wrong number before calling 911. The memo states Bacon’s inability to use the radio leads to the conclusion that he did not perform a radio check before leaving Newport for Norwalk. It was 15 minutes before Bacon spoke with the Coast Guard.
“It does not seem likely, however, that the delay cost Walter Krupinski his life,” the memo states.
Coast Guard regulations require a vessel with a radio to have it powered on to monitor Channel 16 (the hailing and distress frequency).
In his 911 calls and in his DEM trial, Bacon said he was traveling in the channel and Krupinski was coming toward him and coming across the channel when the collision occurred. But a DEM investigation found that the yacht was approaching the Peggy K from 30 degrees behind its beam, meaning the yacht was overtaking the Peggy K and it was primarily Bacon’s responsibility to avoid the collision. The Coast Guard found the yacht overtook the Peggy K from 67 degrees abaft of its beam, which is a point to the rear of the middle of the boat.
The memo states that at the state trial, Bacon admitted “that he did nothing when he saw the boat” and that he had an obligation to avoid Krupinski’s boat even if it was not following the rules of navigation.
“Bacon admitted that he did not change direction, slow down or sound a horn. Bacon agreed that a prudent mariner, under the same circumstances could have slowed his speed, changed his heading, or sounded his horn to alert the other captain and thereby avoid a collision,” the memo states. “Based on the version given at trial, whether the vessels were crossing or he was overtaking, Bacon had the last clear chance to avoid the collision that killed Walter Krupinski and did nothing. His excuses were more damning because they implied that he saw and recognized the hazard but carelessly plowed ahead with reckless indifference to the life he took.”
The memo also cited the findings of a Coast Guard expert who found that Bacon made 11 errors leading up to the collision, including operating at a high speed on autopilot in a narrow channel close to shore.
Noe told the investigator he saw Krupinski floating face-down in the water in a fetal position after the collision and assumed he was already dead. Two fishermen who knew Krupinski and arrived on the scene said he was dead, as well. His body eventually was recovered about 1,000 feet from the collision. The cause of death was multiple blunt force injuries due to being crushed between the hull of the more than 33-ton yacht traveling at 31 knots and the deck of his own boat.
Thompson, Bacon’s attorney, stated in his sentencing memo that Bacon disputes many of the specific conclusions in the government’s memorandum. He wrote that the expert he retained theorized that Krupinski cut in front of the yacht to avoid its wake or, less likely, failed to see the yacht due to the sun or inattentiveness and was struck. In this case, he wrote that the yacht had the right of way and the Peggy K. was the “burdened vessel,” which means it had to signal its intention and to maneuver in a safe manner.
“It seems unlikely that two boats on the open water could collide without one or both captains acting negligently or inattentively,” he wrote. “Mr. Bacon has accepted responsibility for his role in this accident. He is filled with remorse both as a human and as a proud sea captain.”
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