The owner of the Deep Sea crab boat that caught fire and sank to the bottom of Penn Cove will go to trial on a misdemeanor charge this September.
Rory Westmoreland and his attorney, Cooper Offenbecher of Seattle, appeared in Island County District Court for a lengthy hearing Monday morning.
Westmoreland was charged with “vessel abandoned or derelict upon aquatic lands” for allegedly leaving the 128-foot crab boat anchored just outside Penn Cove Shellfish’s mussel rafts.
Westmoreland purchased the nonfunctioning boat from the Port of Seattle and had it towed to Penn Cove in December of 2011, according to Island County Deputy Prosecutor Chris Anderson. He said it’s unclear what plans Westmoreland had for the vessel or why he brought it to Coupeville.
Four months later, an unknown arsonist set the vessel on fire, causing it to sink and spill more than 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the waters, according to a report by the Department of Natural Resources.
In one estimate, state officials concluded the cost of cleanup and damages could be as high as $3 million, though Anderson said he’s seen a wide range of estimates.
The history of the criminal case against Westmoreland is somewhat complicated. An employee at the Department of Natural Resources originally cited Westmoreland about 11 months after the sinking.
The charge was dismissed, Anderson said, a few months later in order to give the investigator more time to gather evidence. The prosecutors office refiled the charge Aug. 30, 2013.
Offenbecher said in court Monday that the Department of Natural Resources officer filed the criminal charge against Westmoreland as a way to recoup the costs of cleanup through the restitution process; he said officials were frustrated that other attempts hadn’t worked.
In an interview, Anderson agreed that restitution will likely come up if Westmoreland is found guilty, but at this point it’s a straight-forward criminal case.
Offenbecher asked Judge Bill Hawkins to dismiss the case, arguing that the statute of limitations had passed by the time the prosecutor’s office refiled the charge. Hawkins disagreed, ruling that the statute limitation had “tolled” or suspended during the period after the case was dismissed and refiled.
Offenbecher also asked for a change of venue, citing the publicity the sinking of the Deep Sea generated on Whidbey Island. He said some of the information in news reports would taint the jury because they will be inadmissible in court.
Again, Hawkins disagreed. He questioned whether any such information would be inadmissible, plus he said the stories weren’t inflammatory. He denied the motion, but said the issue would be revisited later.
In the end, Hawkins set the trial for Sept. 11.