Maine Fatality Spurs Debate on Performance Boats

Harrison, ME — August 26, 2008 — The sign on the edge of town welcomes visitors to “The Friendly Village,” and people here in Harrison, 40 miles northwest of Portland on the shores of Long Lake, like to think they live up to the folksy moniker. But ever since a Massachusetts man in his high-performance power boat collided with a smaller boat on the lake last August, killing a local couple, Harrison residents, and the residents of the other small communities nearby, are decidedly less welcoming to those equipped for speed.

Some would like to see legislative restrictions placed on performance boats – often called cigarette boats because of their long, sleek, narrow bows. They say these boats belong on the ocean, not on inland lakes and rivers. And even some people who oppose government involvement wish performance boaters would take their large toys elsewhere.

But owners of these vilified vessels defend themselves and their boats. They say they’re among the safest boaters on the water and believe they’re being unfairly blamed for the alleged actions of one man, Robert LaPointe, whose manslaughter trial, scheduled to start Sept. 8 in Portland, has brought legal intrigue to Vacationland.

“Performance boats aren’t a safety issue around here,” said Jim Allen, the owner of Naples Marina, located at the south end of Long Lake. “That accident was an accident. It was two boats making contact in the night.”

It’s a debate specific to Maine, but one that’s spreading across the country and New England. On the heels of a death in June on Lake Winnipesaukee, a 72-mile lake and huge tourist destination, state lawmakers voted to enact speed limits on the lake and boaters are watching to see how the limits affect everything from traffic to tourism.

Mainers, especially those who live and summer near Long Lake, are particularly interested. With LaPointe’s trial coming up, people are wondering all over again about what happened last August on Long Lake and whether the lake might be better off without loud, speedy boats like LaPointe’s ill-fated 32-foot vessel, named No Patience.

“There are those who want Maine’s lakes to be like ‘On Golden Pond’ and there are other groups who want them to race speedboats on,” said Major Gregg Sanborn of the Maine Warden Service, which enforces water safety in the state. “And when you have these two user groups come together, there’s going to be a huge confrontation.”

Just after 9 p.m. on Aug. 11 last year, LaPointe’s performance boat – with a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a sale price of well more than $100,000 – slammed into a 14-foot runabout owned by local musician Terry Raye Trott.

Trott, 55, and his 44-year-old girlfriend, Suzanne Groetzinger, were killed on impact. LaPointe, a married, 39-year-old father of two from Medway, was tossed from the boat along with a 19-year-old female companion, Nicole Randall, described by LaPointe’s lawyeras a family friend. The pair swam safely to shore, where authorities had already found LaPointe’s boat. It had skittered off the water and 160 feet into the woods. Even on land, it was still running.

Under questioning, LaPointe told a deputy from the state Warden Service that he had drunk six to eight beers throughout the day and was traveling at between 45 and 50 miles per hour at the time of the crash. A blood test more than two hours later measured his blood alcohol content at .11, higher than the legal limit of .08. And while preparing to have his blood drawn, according to prosecutors, LaPointe suggested to the nurse that she should draw her own blood and substitute it for his.

The story, with all its details, shocked locals on Long Lake, where there had not been a boating fatality in at least 15 years. And yet, on the other hand, locals say, it wasn’t so surprising. For years, boaters have watched the number of performance boats increase on local waters. Murdock “Mac” MacGregor, a boater based in nearby Sebago, has long considered the cigarette boats “accidents waiting to happen.”

“You see them going by – 60, 70 miles per hour, in limited visibility – and that’s what happened here,” said MacGregor, who owns a 26-foot wooden antique boat. “The guy had too much to drink. The boat was going so fast you’ve got to have fast reflexes, and he sliced them in half. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen more often.”

By January of this year, with frustration growing, several boat safety bills were pending before the Maine Legislature, including one sponsored by state Representative Richard Sykes, a Harrison Republican, proposing that access to the lake be restricted to boats with 500 horsepower or less.

But Sykes’ bill, and other proposed regulations, went nowhere due to opposition from boaters. By restricting horsepower, they said, lawmakers would also be excluding large, slow-moving family cruisers from the lake. And worse yet, they argued, lawmakers were unfairly singling out a category of boaters.

The majority of boating deaths in Maine – there were 16 last year – happen on small boats, they pointed out, not large performance boats. Locals, angry over the deaths on Long Lake, were just lashing out, critics said. Folks “from away” – as locals often dub out-of-towners – felt especially targeted.

“I felt it right afterward,” said Ed Ferland, a Wrentham man who until recently owned two boats on Long Lake, including a 31-foot performance boat. “Everyone would stare at you because you had a speedboat, and you hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Over the last year, Ferland said, the stares have dwindled, but animosity still lingers. Whether fair or not, the LaPointe case has become emblematic of bigger, cultural shifts in the region: how it’s grown, how the new people sometimes have different ideals than locals, and how a minority of these visitors just never seem to understand the rhythms of a place like Harrison, population 2,396.

“Some of them do tend to come up and not embrace the whole small-town living thing,” said Cynthia Mckeen, who owns Block Heads salon in tiny downtown Harrison. “They find it hard to leave city life behind. The whole life in the slow lane? They don’t get it. And that’s why you come up here: for peace and tranquillity.”

Still, many locals feel bad for everyone involved in last year’s crash, including LaPointe. In Maine, the charge of manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. In court documents, the LaPointe family says it has spent $275,000 to retain a prominent lawyer, Boston-based J. Albert Johnson, who has represented Patty Hearst and F. Lee Bailey in the past. LaPointe faces wrongful-death civil litigation as well as the criminal charges.

There are questions about whether the lights on Trott’s boat were on at the time of the crash – an issue that will probably come up at trial – and concerns about why Warden Service deputies didn’t read LaPointe his rights before questioning him the night of the accident. As a result, a Cumberland County judge ruled in May that some of LaPointe’s statements will not be admitted at trial.

“I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” said Rick Albert, the general manager of the Olde Mill Tavern in Harrison, who believes, like many, that LaPointe was at fault, yet feels sad for him all the same.

On weekend nights in summers gone by, Albert said, it was common for the LaPointes to dine with friends at the Olde Mill together. They’d grab a large table, he recalled, and were good customers. But this summer, Albert said, he doesn’t remember seeing the LaPointes even once.

Keith O’Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

Maine Fatality Spurs Debate on Performance Boats