FORT WALTON BEACH — A saga that ended shortly before dawn March 18, 2016, with two people dead — and ultimately with Judsen Cunningham facing boating under the influence and vessel homicide charges — had begun 10 hours earlier with a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl.
During his opening statement Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Jack Schlechter described to jurors on the opening day of Cunningham’s trial how the defendant had spent the evening of March 17 wandering from bar to bar until he decided to borrow a boat and take a large group of people out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The ill-fated voyage ended about 5 a.m. when the boat hit the east jetty in Destin and overturned.
Passengers Avery Hatchett, 22, and Anna Sorokina, also 22, were killed, although Sorokina's body has never been recovered. Ten other boat passengers were injured.
Defense attorney David Oberliesen warned the jurors to be on the alert for inconsistent testimony from a variety of witnesses. He told them the weight of those inconsistencies would provide them all the reasonable doubt they would need to acquit Cunningham.
"Your job is to determine what the facts are and what they mean, and to figure it out after all the evidence is presented," he said.
The first witness called by the prosecution was a young woman named Roxanne Angelle, who said she was dating Cunningham at the time of the wreck.
She described accompanying Cunningham to numerous bars along Destin Harbor and driving to a bar called the Rotten Apple for a late-night “power hour.” They picked up the boat, unbeknownst to its owner, after the power hour and returned to the harbor for more drinking, Angelle testified.
Angelle testified Cunningham piloted the 28-foot boat the entire time she was aboard and recalled him shouting out just before the vessel hit the jetty.
"He used that word (an expletive) and he said 'I think we might hit that,' " she testified.
Angelle said she found herself in the water underneath the overturned boat and was being "kicked and hit" as she struggled to get out to open water. She said once there she followed the screaming and yelling of fellow passengers until she reached the rocks of the jetty. She said a person she did not and does not know helped her onto the rocks to safety.
Angelle said she heard Cunningham yelling from underneath the wrecked boat and knew he was alive but trapped. She said she and the person who had helped her out of the water began to knock on nearby doors to seek help.
True to his promise to the jury, Oberliesen attempted to throw doubt on Angelle's testimony. He questioned her memory of how many drinks she'd seen Cunningham consume before the boat wreck and her recollection of the times particular events took place. He also brought up a conviction on a bad check charge, a crime as he phrased it "of dishonesty."
Jarrod Molnar, the first of several Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers to testify Tuesday, said he was the first FWC officer on scene following the boat wreck.
The certified drug and alcohol recognition expert testified that all of the boat crash survivors “appeared intoxicated.”
Molnar said he spoke with Cunningham inside an ambulance waiting to leave for the hospital and noted “a strong odor of alcohol coming from his breath.”
Molnar testified that Cunningham’s speech was slurred, and he had “a blank stare as if he was confused.”
“He said he didn’t own the boat and said he wasn’t operating the boat but had been drinking.”
FWC diver Steve Wicker testified that he found Avery Hatchett's body facedown underwater near the jetty.
“I located somebody laying face down underneath some big rocks, almost like the body had been pinned by the rocks,” he told the jury. “I got close and could see it was a male wearing a hoodie and shorts.”
Wicker said he floated a buoy to mark where the body had been located so recovery efforts could begin.
The afternoon was primarily taken up with the testimony of experts and medical personnel who described the extent of the injuries suffered by Cunningham and two blood tests, one taken about two hours after the wreck that showed him at nearly twice the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle and a second, taken a few hours later, that showed him under the legal limit.
The day's final witness was Susie Spence, the owner of the boat that prosecutors say Cunningham was piloting when the fatal crash occurred. She testified that the boat had been totaled and her insurance company paid a $110,000 settlement.
Spence testified that Cunningham never had her permission to operate the boat and that her son, Brad, who stored the boat at his home, never had permission to allow Cunningham to drive it.
Oberliesen questioned whether Spence reported the boat stolen before or after wreck victims began filing civil lawsuits against her. She said the lawsuits have been settled and she reported the theft on the same day of the fatal accident.
The trial resumes today.