BRITISH COLUMBIA

Karl Lilgert Sentenced To Four Years In Jail

06/24/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/23/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - The navigating officer who sailed the Queen of the North passenger ferry into a remote island off the northern coast of British Columbia, sending the ship to the bottom of the ocean and condemning two passengers to a "watery grave," was sentenced Monday to four years in prison.

But after waiting through investigations, lawsuits and a lengthy trial, there is still one thing Phyllis Rosette, whose cousin Shirley died in the sinking, doesn't have: the honest truth about what happened on the ferry's bridge.

"The truth of that night has never come out," Phyllis Rosette told reporters shortly after a B.C. Supreme Court judge sentenced Karl Lilgert.

"I don't know it will ever come out."

Lilgert, 59, was sentenced to four years for two counts of criminal negligence causing death, although within hours of the sentencing decision, he had filed an appeal and was granted bail while his appeal proceeds.

He was convicted in the deaths of Rosette and her common-law husband, Gerald Foisy, who vanished when the ferry missed a scheduled turn in the early hours of March 22, 2006, and collided with an island.

However, the trial was unable to determine precisely why the ship missed its critical turn, and those answers did not come during Monday's sentencing.

Lilgert was alone on the bridge with quartermaster Karen Briker, his former lover who broke off their affair several weeks earlier. It was their first time working together since the breakup.

The affair has fuelled years of rumours, innuendo and accusations that something — a personal discussion, an argument or perhaps even something sexual — was distracting them from their duties.

Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein concluded the affair clearly contributed to the sinking, but she didn't attempt to explain what role it played.

"Clearly, he was distracted by personal issues related to his relationship with Ms. Briker," said Stromberg-Stein.

"I do not need to speculate on what Mr. Lilgert was doing on the bridge that night. I know what he was not doing. He was not doing his job."

Stromberg-Stein read a strongly worded decision that chided Lilgert for abdicating his responsibility on the bridge and then either lying or attempting to minimize his role in the sinking.

Lilgert sat at a table with his lawyer as the sentence was read. Once the judge finished, he was led away by a sheriff as one of his sons watched from the public gallery. The sentence also included a 10-year ban on operating a vessel.

Lilgert's lawyer, Glen Orris, filed an appeal of the conviction on Monday and confirmed late in the afternoon that Lilgert had been granted bail while the appeal is heard.

Orris said he hopes that process can be finished within the next year.

"Obviously, we want to deal with this as quickly as possible," Orris said in an interview.

The notice of appeal claims the judge made mistakes when she delivered her instructions to the jury.

The Queen of the North was carrying 101 passengers and crew on an overnight voyage between Prince Rupert, on the province's north coast, and Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.

The ship missed its turn as it entered a body of water known as Wright Sound, and evidence presented at trial indicated the vessel then continued on a straight line toward Gil Island, without making any significant course changes or even slowing down.

The Crown alleged Lilgert was distracted by Briker's presence on the bridge.

Both Lilgert and Briker insisted there were no hard feelings and that the affair had nothing to do with the sinking. The Crown accused Lilgert, who testified in his own defence, of either arguing with Briker or having sex with her as the ship sailed on its collision course — both of which Lilgert denied.

Lilgert told the jury he was busy navigating the ship and ordering course changes as he coped with rough weather and unreliable equipment.

Stromberg-Stein said the verdict indicated jury members did not believe Lilgert's claims.

"He engaged in conduct that doomed the vessel, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette with it, to a watery grave, putting the remaining passengers and crew at grave risk," said Stromberg-Stein.

"Being overwhelmed by personal matters, he failed to navigate the vessel. This was not a split-second error in judgment or an inadvertent lapse of care."

Lilgert delivered a tearful apology at his sentencing hearing last Friday, telling the judge of the "deep regret and sorrow" that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

His lawyers described a "fragile man" who has suffered post-traumatic stress and has lost his marriage, his house and his livelihood since the sinking. He currently lives in Grand Forks in southeastern B.C.

The defence asked for a conditional sentence of just shy of two years that would have allowed Lilgert to avoid jail time. His lawyers suggested seven years of investigations, legal battles and constant media scrutiny, including the persistent rumours about sex on the ferry's bridge, were punishment enough.

The Crown asked for six years in prison.

Outside court on Monday, Shirley Rosette's cousin said she accepts the four-year sentence.

"It's going to have to work — it's not two years less a day not in jail, and somebody's been held responsible for their actions," said Phyllis Rosette, who lives in the First Nations community of Dog Creek, where she and Shirley grew up "like sisters."

"For the past seven years, every time something new would come up — it would come up in the news, it would be in the newspaper — that just rips open your wounds again. It's a beginning for us to move on as a family."

The sinking prompted both the Transportation Safety Board and BC Ferries to investigate what happened, and both blamed human error. Neither report was shared with the jury.

The Transportation Safety Board report, released in 2008, concluded a "conversation of a personal nature" was among the factors that distracted Lilgert from his duties and that neither Lilgert nor Briker followed the "basic principles of safe navigation."

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 the judge ruled the evidence was inadmissible.

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