Police had recommended the driver of a jet ski who was towing two teenage girls on an inner tube on Auke Lake be charged with criminally negligent homicide, according to recently released police reports.
Another jet ski on the lake collided with the inner tube this past summer, killing one of the girls and injuring the other.
The homicide charges were never brought, but the collision spurred debate as to whether motorized vehicle usage should be allowed to continue on the lake. The City and Borough of Juneau just last month began hosting a series of public meetings about how the lake should be regulated.
Law enforcement began investigating the death of 16-year-old Savannah Cayce immediately after the June 23 incident. The investigation was completed within three months, and police forwarded their recommended charges to the district attorney’s office on Sept. 6.
According to the reports, the collision took place as the driver of the jet ski — a 20-year-old Juneau resident, according to an earlier police news release — was making a turn around a buoy on the lake, causing the inner tube to drift into the second jet ski.
“I couldn’t do anything about it,” the 19-year-old driver of the second jet ski told a responding police officer at the scene, shaking and in shock, according to the report.
The reports indicate police did not recommend pressing any criminal charges against the 19-year-old driver. All names of all parties involved were redacted from the police reports.
Police investigated how fast the Bombardier Sea-Doo jet ski towing the two girls was traveling at the time of the crash. The driver told the lead investigator of the case during an interview at the police station on June 26 that there was no speedometer on the jet ski, but that he was probably going about 30 to 40 miles per hour during the tow while slowing down for turns.
One witness, an experienced boater on the water at the time who was flagged down to help the girl to the shore after the crash, told police he didn’t see the crash, but that the speed of the jet ski is “almost irrelevant” to the speed of the inner tube.
“When you get into a turn and with the whiplash effect, you can get an inner tube whipping at 80 mph,” the boater told lead investigator Det. Brian Dallas. “As fast as those jet skis can go, when you get into a turn like that you can get the inner tube going extremely fast; I wouldn’t doubt it if it was doing 60-70 mph.”
The 20-year-old told police he had never towed anyone on a jet ski before, and he just started riding jet skis this year. He was unfamiliar with the rules of the lake, and his girlfriend who was a passenger was the one who told him not to go past the buoy.
He said at first he and his girlfriend did not want to tow anyone because they doubted whether their jet ski could handle the weight. But some of the 50 or so people on the docks, near the southeast side of the lake on the Auke Lake trail side, begged them for a tow on the rare sunny day.
“The people on the dock just kept saying please, please pull us, so we decided we could give it a try,” the driver told Dallas at an interview at the police station on June 26.
The couple eventually acquiesced and someone tied a 60 foot rope to the end of the jet ski and attached it to an inner tube.
The girlfriend drove a first pair of girls around the lake, without incident. The inner tube belonged to one of those passengers.
After a spin on the lake, they went back to the docks, dropped them off and picked up the next pair of passengers, Cayce and her friend. They also switched drivers so this time the boyfriend was driving and the girlfriend was the passenger in charge of keeping an eye on the inner tube.
The driver said everything started off fine and the teenagers were having a blast as they made one or two circles in the middle of the lake.
But he started nearing a buoy toward the southwestern part of the lake near the shore where it drains into a bay, and his girlfriend told him the buoys were off limits.
“So I started to turn and went around the buoy a little bit so that I wouldn’t be going too far out of boundaries,” he told Dallas. “That is when the tube started swinging and once a tube starts swinging alongside of you, you can’t really correct it. I tried to correct it as much as I could; I didn’t even see the other (jet ski) until right when it happened.”
The 16-year-old survivor of the crash, who is a lifeguard, told police officers on scene that she didn’t even see it coming.
“We were going along, and the next thing I knew, I was underwater,” she told Officer John Cryderman. “When I came back up, I saw (redacted name) floating next to me.”
The reports indicate the passenger on the Sea-Doo and the driver of the Honda AquaTrax jet ski jumped into the water and kept Cayce afloat. Meanwhile, one of the jet skis went to flag down the boater while several people called 911. The 911 call came in at about 4:22 p.m.
The boat took Cayce to shore, and paramedics with Capital City Fire and Rescue rushed her to Bartlett Regional Hospital since she had an open head wound. She was later medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where she died the morning of June 25.
Neither of the teenage girls were wearing a life jacket.
The driver told Dallas during their interview that he had driven the jet ski about five times prior to the collision. He was more experienced with riding snow machines and other motorized vehicles, he said. He has been towed on boats before and has towed people on four wheelers on the snow in the past, he said.
He said he knew enough to keep an eye on the inner tube as he was turning, and that he had continually glanced behind him to make sure they were OK, especially as he was making the turn. He also said he kept an eye out for other people in the water.
“It’s not that I didn’t know how to drive the jet ski, but it is a little different on the water,” he said, according to the police report. “... I know how they swing and how you turn; It’s not that I didn’t know how.”
Police said in an earlier release that alcohol or drugs were not involved or a contributing factor to the collision.
Dallas noted in his report that during the interview, the driver was shaking, upset and apologizing for the accident. Dallas recommended he talk to a counselor if he felt he needed one.
The man later retained a criminal defense attorney, Julie Willoughby, according to the report.
Police seized the inner tube, jet skis and rope as evidence. According to the report, the Airhead Strike inner tube had a warning label on it, saying the tube was designed to carry no more than one person or 170 pounds. It also warned the boat speed should never exceed 20 mph for adults and 15 mph for children.
District Attorney David Brower informed police on Nov. 17 that his office would not be pressing charges against the driver of the Sea-Doo, according to Lt. David Campbell, a JPD spokesman.
Brower told the Empire in an email exchange that he determined that the negligence shown by the driver did not rise to the level of the definition of criminal negligence.
Brower specifically emphasized a portion of definition that he believed could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which states, “The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”
After the police were informed the case was not being adjudicated, the police reports were sent to the city attorney’s office to be redacted. City Attorney John Hartle said the names and other identifying information of the parties involved were taken out since juveniles were involved, but that the contents of the report did not need redaction.
The Empire requested and was provided the records late last week.
The management and use of Auke Lake falls under the jurisdiction of CBJ’s Parks and Recreation Department.
CBJ created a law, which became effective in June 2007, that regulated motorized use of the lake. Portions of the lake are marked by buoys to show where wake is not allowed and motorized use is prohibited, as well as where wake is restricted (not in excess of six inches), according to the Auke Lake Motorized Use Map.
According to police interviews with city officials, the city relies heavily on residents surrounding the lake to ensure the laws are being enforced.
According to the police reports, that’s exactly what residents did. The night before the inner tube collision, one resident contacted youths at the Harris family dock and warned them that jet skis were coming into the slow area of the lake too fast, and that’s how jet skis were going to get kicked off the lake for good.
The resident warned a group of four people on Friday and another four people on Saturday.
The resident, whose name was not given, additionally told police that there were a lot of jet skis going too fast on the north end of the lake despite heavy water traffic on Saturday. The reports indicate that the two jet skis and the boat were the only watercraft on the water at the time of the crash, but that other jet skis and vessels had been on the lake earlier in the day.
Moments before the collision, a witness, who was swimming in the water at the north end of the lake in the slow zone, said a jet ski came too close to him for comfort. The swimmer swam to shore because he wasn’t sure if the driver could see him. He watched the drivers switch at the dock, and go back on the water. The accident happened 10 minutes later.
A few days afterward, the boater who helped take Cayce to shore went to the police station to tell them about his experience, especially since he has been towing people on the water for years, he said.
He told Dallas that he believed jet ski accidents occur because people are inexperienced and uneducated about it.
“People don’t get a lot of experience with water sports here like this,” the man said, according to the report. “The sun comes out and everyone comes to the lake and might get to do it a handful of times a year. They don’t get a lot of experience and are not experienced boaters. You wouldn’t give a motorcycle that goes 200 mph to a 16-year-old without teaching them how to use it, saying to go have fun; they would kill themselves. A jet ski is no different.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.