BRITISH COLUMBIA

Karl Lilgert Guilty: Queen Of The North Ferry Navigator Caused Passenger Deaths, Jury Finds

05/13/2013 07:05 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - Seven years after a B.C. passenger ferry hit an island and sank, killing Gerald Foisy and his common-law wife Shirley Rosette, a jury has decided the crew member in charge of navigating the ship is responsible for their deaths.

But Foisy's family wanted more than a guilty verdict. They wanted the crew member, Karl Lilgert, to admit it was his fault, to take responsibility for went wrong that night.

And after all this time, he hasn't done that.

"As far as I know, I don't think he's told the truth about what really happened," George Foisy, Gerald's brother, said in an interview Monday shortly after the jury released its verdict.

"And that's all we wanted as family members: What the heck went wrong? Why did this happen?"

Lilgert, 59, was convicted Monday of two counts of criminal negligence causing death — one each for Foisy and Rosette, a common-law couple from 108 Mile House in northern B.C. He showed little emotion as a jury of 11 people found him guilty of the most serious charges available to them.

He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 21, though his lawyer has already indicated he's considering an appeal.

The Queen of the North was on a routine overnight voyage down B.C.'s Inside Passage, when, shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, the ship missed a scheduled turn in a body of water known as Wright Sound. The ferry struck Gil Island and sank.

It was George who had encouraged his brother and sister-in-law to ride the ferry from Prince Rupert, on the province's north coast, to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. He drove the couple from his home in Terrace, about 200 kilometres away, to see them off hours before the collision.

It was the last time he saw them and he's quick to point out no guilty verdict will change that.

"It doesn't bring my brother back," said George, speaking between long pauses as he digested the news of the verdict almost a month after testifying at the trial himself.

Lilgert, a deckhand who was filling in as the ship's fourth officer, was charged in 2010.

He was on the bridge with his former lover, quartermaster Karen Briker, in the half-hour leading up to the collision. It was their first time working alone together since their sexual affair ended several weeks earlier.

Lilgert told the trial he was doing the best he could to navigate the ferry through rough weather and around as many as two boats in the area. Still, he couldn't explain why the ferry struck the island in spite of those efforts.

The Crown called him a liar and accused him of colluding with Briker to fabricate the story he told the jury. A prosecutor accused him of either arguing with Briker of having sex with her as the ferry missed its turn and sailed toward the island.

In the end, the jury appeared to reject Lilgert's version of events.

After the verdict, Lilgert walked out of B.C. Supreme Court in downtown Vancouver surrounded by a throng of television cameras and photographers. With a backpack around his shoulders and a cardboard box in his hands, he said nothing, except to tell a reporter who was knocked down in the commotion to be careful.

He will remain free on bail at least until his sentencing hearing. The maximum sentence for criminal negligence causing death is life, though maximum sentences are rarely imposed.

Later in the evening, his lawyer, Glen Orris, suggested an appeal is likely.

"My immediate reaction is I'm very disappointed," Orris said in an interview.

"I think the prospect of an appeal is very good. As far as the appeal is concerned, I'm not going to discuss with you what I consider to be appropriate grounds. I haven't discussed it with my client, but I anticipate we'll move forward in that regard."

When asked how Lilgert was doing after the verdict, Orris simply said: "My client is doing fine, thank you."

Earlier in the day, after six days of deliberations, the jurors returned with two questions relating to whether Lilgert was directly responsible for the missing passengers' deaths. They asked to what level they must believe Lilgert contributed to the deaths to convict him and whether they could consider factors — which they didn't specify — that might reduce his culpability.

Roughly two hours later, they informed the court they had reached a verdict.

Lilgert's trial began in January and heard from dozens of witnesses, including surviving passengers and crew, marine experts, and the families of Foisy and Rosette.

Jurors also saw evidence from the ferry's electronic chart system, a device the Crown compared to a "black box," which kept a log of the ship's position and course. The data was stored on a hard drive that was recovered from the ship's wreckage.

The data indicated the ship travelled in a straight line from the point where it should have turned until it struck the island, with no significant changes in course or speed.

The Crown argued the data from the electronic chart system was proof Lilgert was not telling the truth, and instead alleged Lilgert made up one of the boats he claimed to be avoiding and exaggerated the severity of the weather at the time of the collision.

The defence suggested the data from the device was unreliable.

The Transportation Safety Board released a report into the sinking in 2008 that blamed the sinking on human error and concluded a "conversation of a personal nature" was among the factors that distracted Lilgert from his duties. The report said neither Lilgert nor Briker followed the "basic principles of safe navigation" as the ferry headed toward the island.

The safety board report also raised concerns about marijuana use on the ship. The Crown wanted to call evidence about Lilgert's own marijuana use, telling a pre-trial hearing there was evidence to indicate Lilgert smoked pot after nearly every shift, but a judge ruled the evidence was inadmissble.

There has never been any evidence to suggest marijuana use contributed to the sinking in any way.

BC Ferries released its own report in 2007, also blaming human error and made 31 recommendations, including better training. The report, however, didn't speculate about why Lilgert missed the turn.

BC Ferries, the former Crown corporation that operates the province's ferry system, eventually settled lawsuits involving Foisy's and Rosette's families and dozens of surviving passengers.

A spokeswoman for the corporation declined to comment on the verdict Monday.

The trial heard from relatives of Foisy and Rosette as the Crown attempted to prove the couple did, in fact, die in the sinking. That task was complicated by several witnesses who told the trial they thought they may have seen the couple in Hartley Bay, the small First Nations community where survivors were taken.

The Crown maintained Foisy and Rosette died in the sinking, though it's never been clear what happened to them, or, if they went down with the ship, why they didn't escape the ferry with the rest of the passengers during a frantic, nighttime evacuation.

Foisy and Rosette, who each had two children, met two years before the sinking, the trial heard. Foisy was separated from his first wife, while Rosette's husband died in a fishing accident in 2003.

The couple lived in 108 Mile House, though in the spring of 2006, they moved into an apartment in nearby 100 Mile House. They were in the process of selling their home in 108 Mile House when they disappeared.

Foisy had worked for years as a metal fabricator at a company in 100 Mile House. Rosette found temporary work as a receptionist at the Dog Creek Indian Band, her hometown.

Foisy and Rosette each had difficulty coping with the losses of their previous spouses, the trial heard, and they were both prescribed antidepressant medication. Questions were raised at trial about whether those medications could have interacted with alcohol to cause drowsiness.

Regardless of what happened to the missing passengers, what is certain is that they were never heard from after the sinking.

Foisy's 22-year-old daughter Brittni, who lived in Penticton, B.C., with her mother and sister, said her father would visit often and they would talk on the phone several times a week. They last saw each other a week before the sinking, when Foisy, Rosette and Foisy's brother visited Brittni and her sister.

"(Our relationship was) very close, warm, and he told both my sister and I on a number of occasions that we were his world and he would do anything for us,'' Brittni Foisy told the trial in April.

"I was shocked when I hadn't heard from him right after the accident. I knew something was wrong."

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