FORT WALTON BEACH — Anna Sorokina, who disappeared March 18, 2016, when she was flung from her boyfriend's arms when a 28-foot boat collided with the rocks of the east jetty, very nearly walked right past the doomed vessel before it ever left Destin Harbor.
Bryan Weiss, who was Sorokina's boyfriend at the time of the accident, was the last of 11 victims of the accident to testify Wednesday at the trial of Judsen Cunningham, who faces numerous charges, including BUI-negligent homicide, as the driver of the boat.
Weiss told jurors he and Sorokina had gotten off work about midnight, came to Destin Harbor for a few drinks and were headed for their vehicle to go home when someone they didn't know asked them if they wanted to join a group for a short cruise.
"Someone said they were going to drink beer in the harbor and listen to music. Since we were working late we figured, 'Why not?' " he said.
Weiss said he and Sorokina didn't know anyone on the boat, but grabbed a beer and settled in for the ride, she on his lap.
He testified he "got a little sketch" when the person driving the boat, who he identified as Cunningham, turned very sharply and headed out of the harbor toward the Gulf of Mexico.
"Anna was in my lap and we were having a conversation. We made a hard bank and I had my arm around her when I honestly thought we got bombed," he testified. "I don't know what happened. It was the loudest noise I ever heard."
Weiss said he came to under the overturned boat and thought he was going to drown. He finally freed himself from the vessel and began searching for Sorokina.
"I called out for probably five or 10 minutes. I got back into the water looking for her. I did all I could," he said. "I never saw her again."
Following Weiss' testimony, Assistant State Attorney Jonathan Schlechter put forensic pathologist Cameron Snider on the stand as his final witness.
Snider brought some members of Avery Hatchett's family to tears as he described the findings of an autopsy he had conducted on Hatchett after his body was found following the wreck.
Snider said he concluded that Hatchett, 22, had been struck a severe blow — likely from the boat's propeller— and then drowned after he was thrown in the water.
When Snider left the stand Schlechter, who had called more than 20 witnesses over the course of two days, rested the prosecution's case. Cunningham's defense team will begin its case today when the trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. at the Okaloosa County Courthouse Annex Extension.
Schlechter's second witness of the day was also a boat wreck victim. Justin Echternacht described the aftermath of the accident as "mayhem."
Echternacht was the last person to escape the boat after the crash. He told the court he suffered broken ribs and couldn’t swim to safety. Cunningham, who was briefly trapped in the cabin of the capsized boat with him, was among those who came to his rescue.
Echternacht said he noticed that Cunningham was intoxicated before he ever got on the boat with him. He said Cunningham was staggering, his speech was slurred and he was “loud and boisterous.”
“If you thought he was impaired, why would you get on the boat with him?” defense attorney David Oberliesen asked Echternacht.
“Bad judgment call on my part,” was the reply.
As his mother had on Tuesday, Brad Spence testified that Cunningham did not have permission to operate the boat he is alleged to have smashed into the east jetty.
Spence, who kept the boat at his home, also testified on cross examination that he had at one time allowed Cunningham to use the boat.
What the jury didn’t hear, and won’t hear, was that Cunningham had wrecked the boat before March of 2016, causing what Spence termed “a gash.”
Spence said he quit letting Cunningham drive the boat because he refused to reimburse him the price of fixing the damage.
Okaloosa County Circuit Judge John Jay Gontarak, who is presiding over the trial, sided with the defense by ruling testimony of the “previous bad act” by Cunningham could be prejudicial to his case.
Dylan Asble, who also was on the boat, testified that he saw Cunningham pour a mixed drink for himself before piloting the boat from Destin Harbor.
And while Asble seemed to have difficulty trying to remember some details from the night of the wreck, he was clear that he had pointed out Cunningham, whose name he did not know, to law officers trying to locate the driver of the boat in the wreck’s aftermath.
Victim Alexander Staniszewski, who is currently in jail, appeared in court in an orange jumper and shackles. He also said Cunningham was driving the boat when it left the dock.
None of the 11 prosecution witnesses who had been on the boat recalled anyone other than Cunningham piloting the vessel.