Fellow diver, counselor testify in drowning trial

Social worker says husband still mourns loss of his wife

Posted: Friday, May 26, 2000

Heidi Kirkevold, who died in a 1996 diving accident in Barlow Cove, was a ``very uneasy'' diver who didn't seem to enjoy the sport, a witness testified Thursday in a lawsuit over her death.

Kirkevold's husband, Gary Ausec, is suing diving instructor Joel Mitchell and The Scuba Tank for damages, both economic and emotional, in the death of his wife, who apparently ran out of air 80 feet underwater. Ausec contends Mitchell should have taken better care of his diving student. Mitchell says she was no longer his student, and that the trio was simply out diving for scallops and crab.

Two witnesses testified Thursday, one about Kirkevold's diving experience and one about the effects of the accident on her husband.

Witness David Phillips of Santa Rosa, Calif., testified telephonically. He said he met Kirkevold and Ausec briefly during a scuba diving vacation in the Cayman Islands and again during 10 days in Venezuela when he went on 14 dives with her.

Ausec's attorney, Mark June, quizzed Phillips about Kirkevold's swimming abilities.

``To the best of my knowledge, her swimming abilities were poor,'' Phillips said.

Kirkevold was ``very uneasy'' during dives, Phillips said, ``literally holding another diver's hand. She seemed more concerned with making it through the dive rather than enjoying the dive.''

The second witness was Juneau clinical social worker Nancy Karacand, who began treating Ausec in January 1997, four months after Kirkevold's death. What she supplied was ``supportive counseling to help him with his grief and the loss of his wife, dealing with anxiety and depression and dealing with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,'' she said.

``It appeared he was isolating (from social contacts) a lot. He did not seem to derive pleasure from any of the things he enjoyed before the (October 1996) accident,'' she said. Ausec felt he ``did not have the right to be alive. He felt without purpose and direction in his life,'' she added.

Today, three and a half year's after Kirkevold's death, Ausec continues to lack orientation for the future. ``He still does not have any life without Heidi,'' Karacand said.

Ausec called her last summer ``in a state of shock,'' saying he had just made a deposition in the case. ``He was feeling that the people in the lawsuit were accusing him of murdering his wife,'' Karacand said.

``Did you feel he was presenting himself in a false light?'' June asked.

``I did not have any sense that he lied. He did not paint a picture of being a wonderful guy,'' Karacand said.

William Wuestenfeld, attorney for Mitchell, who has been accused of negligence in the death of Kirkevold, countered that he had depositions from two people in this case who said they had thoughts that Ausec might have killed his wife.

Judge Larry Weeks handed to the attorneys several questions that the jury wanted addressed. Some had to do with air tanks. One asked when Kirkevold and Ausec last talked about divorce, and what Ausec's reaction to that subject had been.

The suit was filed in 1998. The trial began Tuesday and is expected to continue in Juneau Superior Court for another two weeks.

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