NEWPORT — A toxicology report revealed that the captain of the Mary B II had alcohol, methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system on the night the fishing boat capsized in January coming across the Yaquina Bay Bar, killing all three aboard.
The report was among the first pieces of evidence disclosed Monday during the start of weeklong Coast Guard investigation into the deaths.
A state trooper also testified that she saw skipper Stephen Biernacki with bloodshot eyes and slurred speech on the docks the day before the capsizing and had also fielded a report from a concerned Newport business owner that Biernacki appeared impaired.
Biernacki, 50, of New Jersey, was piloting the Mary B II on the night of Jan. 8 as seas were breaking at 12 to 14 feet with an occasional 16-foot swell. It was just before 10 p.m. when the Coast Guard, which had already escorted other vessels in the treacherous conditions, spotted the Mary B II approaching the bar.
The Coast Guard was trying to guide the vessel to safety using illumination flares when a wave washed over the pilot house, swamping the boat. Crew members James Lacey, 48, of New Jersey, and Joshua Porter, 50, of Toledo were found dead on the beach. Biernacki was found in the pilot house. The boat was snapped in two, the deck sheared off.
Toxicology results on Biernacki indicated he had the three substances in his system. Lacey tested positive for marijuana and Porter didn’t test positive for any substances, according to the Coast Guard.
Biernacki and his mother, Mary Anderson of San Diego, had bought the 41-foot boat from longtime local fisherman Clint Funderburg only months before. The boat, previously named the Bess Chet, was built in 1957 and dependably sea-worthy, Funderburg testified.
“It was a good seaboat,” he said. “It was very stable with a long history of crab fishing and going across the bar. I always felt very secure operating the vessel.”
Funderburg decided to sell the Bess Chet last summer to upgrade to a bigger boat. After being approached by Biernacki and Anderson, he agreed to sell the pair the boat, its fishing gear and Dungeness crab permit. But Funderburg acknowledged he had concerns about Biernacki’s experience and knowledge of the area.
“I noticed erratic behavior at times, definitely,” Funderburg said. “I sensed a lack of experience, a lack of respect for the West Coast conditions. While we were going through the boat, I sensed he didn’t understand the local bars and crossing. It concerned me at the time. I attempted to talk to him and give him some local experience and knowledge, but he seemed unresponsive to accepting the information.”
Funderburg also talked with Biernacki about handling the boat and steps he could take to improve stability and had his nephew take Biernacki on a test run from the Port of Toledo, where the boat had undergone repairs and routine maintenance, to Newport – about five miles.
Funderburg tried again to discuss the entrance to Yaquina Bay, a notoriously rough bar in bad weather.
“He basically told me he knew what he was doing … and was very experienced,” Funderburg said.
Oregon State Police Senior Trooper Heather Van Meter reported receiving a call from Biernacki’s former employer, a commercial fisherman based in Newport, after the accident. Biernacki had skippered one of the man’s three vessels the prior year but was let go because the boat owner had “concerns” about Biernacki’s abilities, she said.
Van Meter had encountered Biernacki at the Port of Newport docks the day before the capsizing.
He seemed very tired, she said, noting that fishermen are typically exhausted after the first week.
“I wasn’t sure what the impairment was, but he did have very bloodshot eyes. He was a little distracted when I was talking to him,” she said. “He had some slurred speech and his movement was pretty slow and sluggish.”
But she said he was standing on the dock, not driving the boat. “That’s not a crime,” she said.
Van Meter also testified that at some point before the capsizing she’d received a call from a seafood buyer who reported having a conversation with Biernacki and felt he was impaired.
“He was concerned,” Van Meter said. “He didn’t think it was a good idea for the boat to go out.”
The hearing is scheduled to continue through Friday with a decision on the case and its causes due from the Coast Guard by Oct. 1.
— Lori Tobias
Special to The Oregonian/OregonLive