Sen. Barkus faces 3 felonies in boat crash

2009-10-07T11:45:00Z Sen. Barkus faces 3 felonies in boat crashMICHAEL JAMISON Missoulian The Billings Gazette
October 07, 2009 11:45 am  • 

KALISPELL - Montana Sen. Greg Barkus has been charged with three felonies in the wake of an Aug. 27 Flathead Lake boating accident in which he and four others - including Congressman Denny Rehberg - were badly injured.

Prosecutors say Barkus' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal limit for driving - at .16 - when sampled nearly two hours after the crash.

Barkus has been charged with one felony count of criminal endangerment and two felony counts of negligent vehicular assault.

The endangerment charge comes with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. The vehicular assault charges each carry a maximum 10-year, $10,000 penalty.

"Right now, I have no comment on the matter," Barkus said Wednesday, adding that he intends to release a prepared statement in the coming days. His attorney was unavailable for comment, as has been the case since the late-night accident six weeks ago.

An arrest warrant was issued for Barkus and bond was set at $30,000. At an initial appearance on Wednesday, Barkus was released on his own recognizance, and an arraignment in Flathead District Court was set for Oct. 22.

Investigators say the Kalispell Republican leader was driving his boat across Flathead Lake, from an "end of the summer" dinner in Lakeside to a resort in Bigfork, at about 10 p.m. when he ran into rocky cliffs near Wayfarers State Park. On board were Rehberg, his staffers Kristin Smith and Dustin Frost, and Barkus' wife Kathy.

Smith told investigators she saw Barkus drink "one hard-liquor drink, Scotch perhaps," during the dinner, according to charging documents filed Wednesday. The dinner tab and a waitress statement show he had two Scotch drinks.

"And so I remember Greg had - had one of those," Smith told authorities, "and then after that I saw him drinking red wine. … They had bottles of red and white wine out, um, you know, with drinks. So I saw him - he was basically drinking, at least what I saw, red wine for the rest of the night."

The group left the Lakeside restaurant at about 10 p.m., and court records state "it was dark at the time. The Barkus boat was not equipped with a spotlight or other lighting to illuminate its path."

Charging documents indicate Barkus was navigating by GPS, but "according to Ms. Smith, at one point during the trip the Defendant appeared to be confused about their direction of travel - 'I think I'm turned around' - and believed they were heading toward the river rather than Bigfork. At that time, he made a 'big' course correction to the right."

Smith told investigators she believed the boat was traveling at about 40 mph through the dark. The speedometer appeared broken, but she "recalled the engine being run at 4,000 RPM."

Boat experts concurred that at that RPM, with five passengers on board, the boat could have been traveling as fast as 45 mph.

Charging documents quote Smith as saying "we were definitely heading, like, full speed straight forward," when she realized they were about to hit the rocky shore.

Scrape marks and debris patterns led investigators to conclude the boat was heading north when it ran aground, "went airborne, and then crashed into the rocks and cliff where it came to rest."

Responding to an emergency call received at 10:18 p.m., authorities "found the boat lying completely out of the water lying vertically against a cliff," according to court records.

Rehberg had a badly broken ankle as well as a minor head injury. Barkus sustained a broken pelvis, fractured ribs and lacerations. Frost suffered a serious head injury, "and was in a coma for several days," court records state. All three continue to recuperate. Smith and Kathy Barkus "suffered less serious injuries," although Smith did sustain several fractures.

Samples of Barkus' blood, taken at Kalispell Regional Medical Center an hour and 45 minutes after the crash (two hours after the group left the restaurant) showed his blood-alcohol content at .16. A second sample, taken four hours after the crash, put his BAC at .12, still well above the legal limit for driving of .08.

Rehberg, who had previously said Barkus did not appear drunk the night of the crash, released a statement Wednesday saying "I was surprised to learn the results of Greg's blood-alcohol test. He didn't appear to be impaired to me when we got on the boat for the return trip to Bigfork."

Rehberg emphasized Barkus' presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and pledged to work with authorities as the case unfolds.

It is not the first time Barkus has been arrested for drunken driving. On June 3, 2004, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Lake County, near Polson. He later pleaded guilty to reckless driving, and was fined $335 and ordered to complete a DUI offender program.

Barkus, following his initial appearance in court, continues to recuperate at his Kalispell home. He remains confined to a wheelchair, and does not expect to be up and moving for several more weeks.

Rehberg and Smith both returned to work at the U.S. Capitol shortly after the accident, and Frost has recently begun communicating with the office again, via e-mail and telephone.

"He's not exactly back to work, but he did participate in our staff meeting earlier this week," Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said. "He is recovering."

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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