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Utah man guilty in swimmer's death at Pineview Reservoir

Published December 14, 2012 9:52 pm

Courts • Man faces up to 2½ years in jail for Pineview hit and run.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ogden • A jury needed just 90 minutes Friday to convict a 22-year-old man on charges related to the death of a woman hit by his boat's propeller at Pineview Reservoir in August 2011.

The jury of five men and one woman found Skyler Shepherd guilty on all three charges of reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and failure to render aid. Sentencing is set for Jan. 23, when Shepherd faces a maximum sentence of 2½ years in jail. He left the courthouse without comment Friday.

Shepherd was a passenger on a boat he owned when the rotor struck University of Utah lab specialist Esther Fujimoto, 49, as she was swimming on the evening of Aug. 21. Two of Shepherd's friends, Colton Raines, 23, and Robert Cole Boyer, 30, are also charged with obstructing justice. And Raines, who was driving the boat when Fujimoto was hit, is charged with reckless endangerment and failure to render aid. Trials for Raines and Boyer are set for February.

Weber County prosecutor Dean Saunders declined comment on what effect Shepherd's conviction might have on those cases.

After the verdict was announced, Fujimoto's brother, Bryan Fujimoto, said he still wonders how his sister felt after the accident. He wonders if she was frightened and believes that she suffered. But, he said, justice was served.

"Where there was a void before, there is now resolution," he said.

According to testimony during Shepherd's trial, the three men were boating near the Spring Creek Cove area of the reservoir at about 8 p.m. after drinking with friends earlier in the day. Witnesses who were with the men that day testified that Raines and Boyer also had smoked marijuana. While Raines was driving the boat at the time of the accident, Shepherd took the wheel when they circled back to check on Fujimoto. He told police that Fujimoto said she was OK, so they left.

But Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey testified that the injuries to Fujimoto's lower abdomen and legs meant she likely would have been in severe pain. She died soon after a lakeshore resident who heard her screams rowed out to rescue her.

At the time the trio was charged, leaving the scene of a boating accident involving serious injury or death was only a misdemeanor. Fujimoto's case spurred Utah lawmakers to pass a bill earlier this year that elevates such behavior to a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

During closing arguments Friday, Saunders asked the jury to listen to the courtroom clock tick for 22 seconds.

"Think about that, after the boat's been shut down. That's the period of time Esther's screaming in agony," he said.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that Shepherd and his companions knew she had been hit. But his attorney, Glen Neeley, said during closing arguments that it was a mistake.

"We all make mistakes in life, some serious," but not necessarily criminal, Neeley said. The water was dar , and Fujimoto was wearing a black wet suit, so it's plausible his client would not have seen her injuries, he argued. Shepherd claimed the woman angrily replied that she was OK when he spoke to her.

"He was a 21-year-old boy, and he felt like he got scolded. So yeah, he left," Neeley said. After sleepless nights, Shepherd told investigators everything he knew, but still was charged with obstruction of justice, he said.

But Saunders told jurors they shouldn't believe the defendant, who Saunders argued could have heard Fujimoto's screams as well as Vaughn Anderson, who was about 200 yards away when he got in his boat to go to her aid. Both sides praised Anderson as a hero for rowing out to Fujimoto, calling for help and staying with her as she died.

During the trial, jurors watched a videotaped re-enactment of the accident, in which investigators attempted to determine whether the three men really could not see into the water or hear the woman's screams, as Shepherd claimed.

Weber County sheriff's Detective Scottie Sorensen testified he could clearly hear the screams of the man in the water during the re-enactment, despite the patrol boat's motor being much louder than Shepherd's. He also said he could clearly see the swimmer's midsection and torso in the water.

"I could see down into the water," he said. "I could see his legs. I could see his midsection, torso and his arms, of course."

Neeley tried to discredit the re-enactment, noting that the police swimmer wasn't wearing a black wet suit, and it was not windy that day.

Fujimoto was not in a no-wake zone when she was struck, Sorensen said. But the area is popular with open-water swimmers and is generally not frequented by boats because the water is often shallow, and most boaters would not want to risk getting stuck, according to Sorensen. However, at the time of the accident, the reservoir was especially high because of heavy snow runoff from the mountains.

Sorensen added that the area did not prohibit swimmers or boaters, although "it would be abnormal for boats to have been [there,]" he said.

mmcfall@sltrib.com