The district attorney’s office has dismissed a manslaughter charge against a Massachusetts boater in connection with a swimmer’s death on Damariscotta Lake last August, saying it could not prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
Jonathan D. Roberts, 44, of Waban, Mass., instead pleaded guilty to reckless operation of a watercraft, a class D misdemeanor, during a hearing at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Wiscasset the afternoon of Monday, July 29. He will avoid jail time and eventually earn a dismissal of the misdemeanor if he abides by the terms of a plea agreement.
Roberts will have to complete 100 hours of community service in the first year of a three-year deferred disposition. If he completes the community service and does not commit another crime, the state will dismiss the final criminal charge and he will pay a $400 fine for a civil violation of operating a boat at greater than headway speed within a water safety zone.
In addition to the manslaughter charge, the district attorney’s office dismissed a charge of operating at an imprudent speed, a class E misdemeanor.
“If, after one year, the defendant completes community service and is in compliance with the agreement, it may be terminated at that time,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Gerety said.
If Roberts does not successfully complete the agreement, he could face up to the maximum sentence for a class D crime, which is 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Roberts was operating a boat on Damariscotta Lake the evening of Aug. 2, 2018, when he struck and killed Kristen McKellar, 32, of Camden, who was swimming in the lake.
A Lincoln County grand jury indicted him on the three charges in January 2019 and he was arrested in Massachusetts. He pleaded not guilty to all charges during a court appearance in Wiscasset the next month.
“I want to state we don’t take this lightly. … We do believe this was the best result given the evidence, existing law, and likeliness of success at trial. I can’t imagine the pain the family felt and continues to feel,” Gerety said.
Roberts’ bail conditions prohibit contact with the victim’s family.
Superior Court Justice Daniel Billings presided over Monday’s hearing and accepted Roberts’ guilty plea to reckless operation after hearing statements from the district attorney’s office; the victim’s family; Roberts’ attorney, Walter F. McKee; and Roberts himself.
Three members of Kristen McKellar’s immediate family delivered emotional testimony, discussing the impact of her loss on family and friends — and sharply criticizing the plea deal as too lenient.
The victim’s mother, Molly McKellar; sister, Alison McKellar; and father, Hugh McKellar, spoke at the hearing.
The plea agreement was brokered at a settlement conference between the prosecution, defense, and Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzsche in Portland’s Cumberland Superior Court in May.
Monday’s hearing began with a statement from Gerety, who outlined the specifics of the plea agreement.
Roberts must provide proof of his community service and abide by the standard terms of a deferred disposition, such as notifying the district attorney’s office of any contact with law enforcement.
The first family member to speak was the victim’s mother, Molly McKellar.
Molly McKellar described her daughter as always willing to help those in need.
“Kristen did so much for all of us, from snow removal to horse and dog care on my small farm. She took care of the grandkids, helped her father take care of his home, ran errands. … She helped those in need and maintained websites for nonprofits,” Molly McKellar said.
Molly McKellar urged Roberts to pick up the spirit of her late daughter.
“No more tears. Step up, make people smile, find fosters for animals, fix a neighbor’s plumbing for free. You can’t fix the past, but you have the gift of freedom. Use it well,” Molly McKellar said.
Alison McKellar described her close relationship with her sister from a young age and called the plea deal a “joke.”
“We were best friends growing up, not just sisters. We were sisters by chance, best friends by choice,” Alison McKellar said.
Alison McKellar said the indictment gave the family some relief, but that changed as the case progressed and a new district attorney took office.
“I do not believe this court has heard the best version of the argument in favor of the manslaughter charge. This is the legal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. This felt like ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I can’t begin to fathom — 100 hours of volunteering is what Kristen would do in a month,” Alison McKellar said.
Hugh McKellar said the plea agreement offered no justice.
“I finally get to look the man who killed my daughter eye to eye,” Hugh McKellar said.
Hugh McKellar was adamant that a jury should have heard the evidence in the case.
“This is not justice; it just further empowers people to be reckless. What is proven, despite your claim, is that there are no consequences for your action,” Hugh McKellar said.
Hugh McKellar said Roberts is responsible for the loss of his daughter because “you didn’t pay attention to what you were doing and shame on you,” he said.
McKee described the plea deal as a compromise and the incident on Damariscotta Lake as an accident, citing the results of an investigation by the Maine Warden Service into the speed of the vehicle and location of the collision.
Roberts addressed the court after his attorney, saying he replays the night of the incident over and over again.
“I think about her every day and I am so very sorry,” Roberts said.
Billings, prior to accepting the plea, spoke about the difficulty of finding justice in certain cases. He said there are different ways to look at the facts in this case, and agreed with Gerety that the case would have been hard to win at trial.
“Justice may be a goal. The best we can do in our system is apply the law reasonably and fairly. … Keep in mind, not every accident is a result of negligence. Some horrible accidents are just that, accidents, and not every mistake constitutes a crime. There is a difference between simple and criminal negligence,” Billings said.
Reached for comment after the hearing, District Attorney Natasha Irving, who attended the hearing, said the Maine Warden Service estimated Roberts’ boat was going 17 to 18 mph at the time of the collision.
Irving said she did not believe her office could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The only confidence we had is that we would have lost and we didn’t think that was the right thing to do,” Irving said.
During the hearing, Irving addressed the court, offering condolences to the victim’s family.