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Captain gets six years for ‘seaman’s manslaughter’

Three passengers died when his boat capsized crossing a bar that was closed

Three passengers died when his boat capsized crossing a bar that was closed

James E. Parker Jr. found it disquieting that the captain of the charter fishing boat he had just boarded on Oregon’s WinchesterBay seemed so disorganized.

It was Sept. 19, 2005, and the 38-foot Sydney Mae II was about to set off for the last day of tuna season. But the captain, Richard J. Oba, “was just kind of frantic, getting everything ready before he left,” Parker, 60, recalls. “He gets up on the flying bridge. The boat surges [ahead] twice” but goes no place. “He forgot to untie the boat,” says Parker, who had boarded the vessel on a whim with his friend, William Harris, 57. “I said, ‘Bill, let’s get off this son of a bitch right now,’ ” Parker says. “He [Harris] says, ‘Oh, no.’ ”

The boat left the dock that morning with Oba and four passengers aboard, but Parker, of Eugene, Ore., continued to feel nervous, and with reason. “Have you ever heard of a captain putting his boat on full-speed, put it on automatic pilot and go below and rig fishing gear?” Parker asks. “We’re skipping along the ocean full speed and nobody behind the wheel.”

Later that day, Oba cut the trip short because of deteriorating conditions, but when he found the UmpquaRiver bar off of WinchesterBay closed by the Coast Guard because of dangerous surf, he decided to risk entering the inlet anyway. Harris, of Springfield, Ore., and two other passengers died when the Sydney Mae II capsized in the surf. Only Parker and Oba survived.

Now, Oba, 59, is serving a six-year sentence in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., having pleaded guilty to three charges of seaman’s manslaughter, a seldom-used criminal law. Because his was a federal crime Oba is not eligible for parole, but if given time for good behavior he could be released Oct. 2, 2012.

Parker says he is satisfied with Oba’s sentence, which gives Oba about two more years in jail than federal prosecutors had sought.

“This [sentence] sends the message loud and clear,” says U.S. Attorney Karin J. Immergut, whose office prosecuted Oba. “If you ignore the warnings of the Coast Guard and tragedy results, you will go to prison.”

Parker, who testified for Assistant U.S. Attorney Dwight C. Holton in the sentencing hearing before Chief Judge Ancer L. Haggerty, says he heard Oba get nine warnings from the Coast Guard before the tragedy. He says Oba had agreed around dusk to the Coast Guard’s order that he steer his boat south, to CharlestonHarbor, about a 20-mile voyage. But then, at about 8:30 p.m., the Sydney Mae II headed into the bar.

“He [Oba] lied to the Coast Guard. He lied and manipulated us by telling us he was going to take us to Charleston,” Parker says. “It was only a 45-minute run to Charleston. That’s the part that kills me.”

“[Oba’s sentence] is believed to be the longest ever in this type of case,” Immergut’s office said in a news release. “The pilot of Staten Island Ferry, operating in waters off New York City, received a sentence of 18 months after he fell asleep at the helm and crashed his ferry into a pier, killing 11.”

Immergut’s deputy, Holton, had asked Judge Haggerty to sentence Oba to four years in federal prison, but the judge, agreeing that Oba’s behavior was reckless, increased the sentence.

The Sydney Mae II had steamed 50 miles off the Oregon coast that morning, a day of clear skies and large swells. “It was just a beautiful day,” Parker recalls. “You’d see whales and sharks and tuna.” The passengers on the boat were catching tuna. Parker and Harris each caught one. Virginia Strelow, Oba’s 63-year-old bookkeeper, hooked a tuna but lost it. Paul Turner, 76, of Boise, Idaho was feeling fatigued and spent some of the trip lying on a bunk.

There were six hand lines in the water and four rods were rigged when, at 5 o’clock that afternoon, Oba announced he was terminating the trip and heading for shore, Parker says. The Coast Guard had just broadcast a radio message that the Umpqua Bar was closed. Oba offered his three paying customers a $100 certificate toward another trip and headed east, Parker says.

Turner and Strelow each took one of the two bunks on the boat, Parker says. “Bill and I laid down, but the [boat ’s exhaust] fumes are killing me, so I went up top” to the flying bridge. When the boat was 38 miles out, there was a Coast Guard announcement on the radio that Umpqua Bar was closed, he says. The same message was repeated when the Sydney Mae II was 25 and 17 miles out and “all the way until we’re setting right up on the north jetty. He [Oba] was making calls on his cell phone. He had two friends. They called the Coast Guard and told Richard that they thought the bar was good enough to cross. The Coast Guard said they weren’t changing the report.”

“I’m looking at the north jetty, and it would completely disappear” under the surf, Parker says. “He [Oba] asked the Coast Guard one more time, and they said, ‘Go to Charleston. The bar is closed.’ And he hung up on them. He idled across [outside the bar] from north to south,” Parker says. “I thought he slowed down because there would be nobody in the tower and he could sneak in.”

Parker says there were five charterboat captains, including Oba’s friends, high on a bank above the bar watching. “All he [Oba] is doing is looking at the GPS, and he didn’t have any lights where you could see the ocean. Bill was in the cabin, and he climbs up on the flying bridge. He said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Man, those waves are hitting the jetty and you can’t even see it!’ ”

At this point, Parker says, the Sydney Mae II almost hit a red buoy. “When he made the left turn, you could have touched the red can,” Parker says. At that point one of the captains on the bank called on the radio and told Oba not to try to cross the bar.

“Right after that call was over, I turned around and it was just a wall of water ... and it sucked our stern into the belly of the wave. It looked like it was 3 or 4 feet over my head. When it hit us, it just sunk us. It tore the bow off. They never did find the old man who was sleeping in there.”

Only Oba entered the water with a life jacket, Parker says. Parker and his friend, Harris, were close together at first, clinging to the boat’s hand rails and outriggers that were still above the water. They saw Strelow floating out from under the wreckage, Parker says.

“Bill said, ‘Grab her!’ I grabbed her and another big wave hit. They were 21 feet when the Coast Guard [later] crossed the bar. After that wave hit, I couldn’t hold onto that lady. It washed me away from the boat, and the tide had taken me out to sea. I think I’m done.”

Grasping desperately, Parker says he finally caught an outrigger. But his foot got stuck in one of the outrigger braces and the force of the water dragged him under. Parker says he thought then that he would drown.

Instead, he says, he found the tether for the life raft, which had tangled in the outrigger. Yanking on the line he caused the raft to inflate, switching on a strobe light that the captains on the bank saw.

When a large wave caught the raft, “it just took off and it took me with it. Then I was about 35 yards away from the boat, and it was big thundering waves and white water,” Parker says. “I could see my friend, Bill. He was just floating in the water. When I swam over there, he was unconscious. I tried to get him back to the boat. Another big wave hit and washed Bill away.

“They found that woman two miles down the beach, and they found Bill six miles down the beach,” Parker says. Both were dead.

Later, Parker and Oba met and swam together until they saw a Coast Guard rescue boat nearby. Riding up and down the deep swells, Parker says he was yelling and waving. “They drove the boat about 2 inches beside me and one seaman reached down and grabbed me by the shoulder of my jacket.” Another grabbed Oba, he says. “We were in the 53-degree water 45 minutes.”

Parker says he and Oba were taken to a hospital. “I had IVs in my arms and blankets over my head,” Parker recalls. “Richard moves over next to my ear and says, ‘Sorry, Jim.’ I didn’t see him again until the trial.”