Emotional testimony, toxicology results and a captain’s troubled past have been among the topics discussed at this week’s U.S. Coast Guard hearing for the Mary B II in Newport.
Earlier in the week it was reported that investigators had found amphetamine, methamphetamine and alcohol in the body of boat skipper, Stephen Biernacki, 50, after his death. A toxicology expert, Brian M. Bourgeois, spoke this week at the live streamed hearing claiming the levels of methamphetamine indicated Biernacki was impaired.
“I would call this mariner not fit for duty and certainly not what I would call seaworthy,” Bourgeois said.
Biernacki had recently moved to Oregon from New Jersey and hired Joshua Porter, 50, of Toledo to work on the Mary B II for a week during the start of the Dungeness crab season. This week, the Coast Guard panel had the chance to hear from Porter’s wife Denise, who detailed a series of texts and two phone calls from her husband that fateful day.
Porter was the only man aboard the vessel to not have drugs or alcohol in his system according to toxicology tests and discussed with his wife his concern with captain Biernacki.
“He said, this guy is going to hurt someone,” Denise said at the hearing Wednesday. “Every time we talked about it was like, ‘I have bills to pay. If we get this first pick I'll be on to the next boat and everything will be okay.’”
Denise said Joshua told her Biernacki delayed their trip that morning as they waited for the captain to buy alcohol for their voyage. Denise also claims Biernacki wouldn't listen to advice given by Joshua, as he began to question the skipper’s judgment after learning Biernacki did not regularly check the tides and did not know how to use some of the equipment on the boat.
Joshua was expected to return to port by 2 p.m. the day of the incident Denise said and once he did not return, she received a call from Joshua saying he wouldn't be home until 4 p.m.
“He said he (Biernacki) wanted to go and do two more strings,” Denise said, referring to the crab pots.
Later, Joshua sent a text saying the Coast Guard was sending a boat to help the Mary B II get across the Yaquina Bar. The Coast Guard had told the crew the boat that crossed before them had trouble. As they texted back and forth, Joshua called Denise.
“‘I'm scared, it's really big out here, I'm putting my life jacket on and I'm putting my phone and wallet in my pocket,’” Denise recalled the conversation. “He said, ‘I've got to go’ and he hung up.”
Denise then drove to the jetty, while still exchanging messages with Joshua, and saw flares over the water and lights from boats in the surf. She asked ‘are you guys through now?’ and didn’t receive a response.
“Then I saw the helicopter and I knew something bad had happened,” Denise said. “I knew I'd never talk to him again.”
In addition to the emotional testimony from Denise Porter, the Coast Guard panel has also heard from numerous people detailing the troubled past of Biernacki. Wednesday, the panel learned of an incident in March of 2014, in which Biernack was arrested in New Jersey for allegedly ramming a patrol car while intoxicated, then assaulting an officer.
While being processed at police headquarters in 2014, Biernacki allegedly became irate and aggressive and hit and threatened to kill the officer who was processing him, according to a news release. Police charged Biernacki with driving while intoxicated, terroristic threats, resisting arrest and aggravated assault on police.
The Coast Guard plans to wrap up its investigation Friday and will release its findings later.
From earlier this week:
The Coast Guard began its five-day hearing in Newport May 15 to consider evidence related to the Mary B II marine casualty investigation. Investigators from the Coast Guard claim that the captain of the vessel tested positive for methamphetamine and alcohol in the toxicology tests.
The commercial fishing vessel Mary B II, originally capsized on Jan. 8 at the entrance of Yaquina Bay in Newport and led to the deaths of three fishermen. Boat captain Stephen Biernacki, 50, from Barnegat Township, New Jersey and crew members James Lacey, 48, of South Toms River, New Jersey, and Joshua Porter, 50, of Toledo, Oregon were on the boat that day facing reported waves of 14 to 16 feet with occasional waves of 20 feet.
The hearing is being live streamed each day and on Monday, a panel of Coast Guard investigators questioned witnesses who had spoken to or been involved with the three men. According to toxicology results shared at the hearing, in addition to the methamphetamine and alcohol found in Biernacki’s system, tests found cannabis in Lacey's system as well. Porter had no drugs or alcohol in his body when he died.
Oregon State Police Trooper Heather Van Meter was one of the witnesses who spoke at the hearing, giving information from people who though Biernacki was exhibiting signs of impairment in the days before the incident. Van Meter spoke of a call from a local business owner of a seafood restaurant, who had encountered Biernacki before he headed out to sea.
“He (the owner) was concerned that the boat was going to go back out and fish because the weather was going to turn pretty bad,” Van Meter said. “He didn't think it was a good idea for a boat of that size to go back out.”
Van Meter also spoke of her personal witnessing of Biernacki on the docks with bloodshot eyes and slurred speech the day before the accident. However, she also stated this was not an uncommon to see among fishermen.
“The fleet will push themselves in the weather, the fleet will push themselves even if they haven't slept for days and days and days,” Van Meter said. “They're going to push themselves. They need to make a living and they have families.”
The man who sold the 42-foot crabber to Biernacki also spoke at the hearing, claiming that Biernacki was seen behaving erratically and appeared to have little to no experience on the Newport bar.
“I sensed the lack of experience and respect for local West Coast conditions in my talking with him," Funderburg said. “I could sense he didn't understand the local bars and crossings and it concerned me at the time.”
The investigators heard from additional witnesses on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they will take testimony from medical examiners and toxicology professionals. The hearings to follow include testimony from the boat owner, Mary Anderson, of San Diego and Chief Warrant Officer Tom Molloy of Station Yaquina Bay.
The hearing is scheduled to convene at 8 a.m. at the Newport City Hall, 169 SW Coast Highway and will continue to May 17.
The hearing will also be streamed live each day at: https://livestream.com/accounts/17374493/events/8625145.
The Coast Guard has established an e-mail address for the public and interested parties to provide information, ask questions and make comments related to the ongoing investigation and scheduled hearing. This e-mail will be checked regularly and all correspondence will be acknowledged. The e-mail is MaryBII.email@example.com.
Throughout the investigation the Coast Guard will also continue to monitor any email that is sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and all information sent to that address will be reviewed and responded to.
Additional information about the hearing, to include the schedule of witnesses, fact sheets and biographies, as well as any future news releases and documentation can be found at: https://www.news.uscg.mil/news-by-region/13th-district-pacific-northwest/mary-b-ii-formal-hearing/.