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Brandon Clifton holds up a life ring from the Queen of the North in Hartlet Bay, B.C., in August 2006. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Brandon Clifton holds up a life ring from the Queen of the North in Hartlet Bay, B.C., in August 2006. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

QUEEN OF THE NORTH

Jury starts deliberation in BC ferry crash trial Add to ...

Karl Lilgert was a veteran mariner and an experienced navigator when he assumed control of the bridge on the Queen of the North passenger ferry as it headed south through the night from Prince Rupert.

Crewmates described Mr. Lilgert, who spent many years fishing up and down the coast, as someone who knew the northern waters of the ship’s course very well.

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But something went terribly wrong not long after Mr. Lilgert began his navigation duties just past midnight on March 22, 2006, alone on the bridge with his ex-lover for the first time since they broke up.

A crucial course correction was not made, and 20 minutes later, the Queen of the North slammed into Gil Island, causing the ship to sink. Two passengers on board at the time of the unprecedented calamity for BC Ferries have not been seen since.

Now, after nearly four months of testimony and legal arguments in Mr. Lilgert’s frequently gripping trial on two charges of criminal negligence causing death, a jury will choose which version of the event to believe.

Jurors began deliberating late on Tuesday after a two-day charge by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein, who suggested to sheriffs that the 12 men and women first be taken outside for a walk “to clear away the cobwebs.”

Justice Stromberg-Stein said the credibility of Mr. Lilgert is key to deciding the case. “If you believe Mr. Lilgert’s testimony, you must find him not guilty,” she told the jury. “Even if you don’t believe him, but find that it leaves you with a reasonable doubt, you must [acquit him].”

According to Mr. Lilgert, he was busy navigating the ferry, making small course alterations to avoid traffic in the area, and dealing with a sudden squall, only to be stunned when he suddenly saw the trees of Gil Island at a time he expected to be half a kilometre off shore.

According to Mr. Lilgert, he was busy navigating the ferry, making small course alterations to avoid traffic in the area, and dealing with a sudden squall, only to be stunned when he suddenly saw the trees of Gil Island at a time he expected to be half a kilometre off shore. He denied anything out of the ordinary happened between him and his ex-lover, quartermaster Karen Briker.

Mr. Lilgert said he has no idea what caused the Queen of the North to run into the island.

The Crown accused the navigator of fabricating his version of what took place on the bridge. Prosecutors pointed to electronic charting of the ferry’s course that showed it travelling in a straight line until it hit the north-east corner of the island. They suggested Mr. Lilgert was distracted from his duties by “personal business” with Ms. Briker, perhaps sexual activity or a heated argument.

Justice Stromberg-Stein reminded the jury that “simple carelessness or honest mistakes” are not generally considered criminal.

For Mr. Lilgert to be found guilty of criminal negligence causing death, the Crown must prove that his actions represented “a wanton and reckless disregard for the lives of others” and were “a marked departure from the conduct of a reasonable person in the circumstances” facing the accused, she said.

The judge added that the jury could also find Mr. Lilgert guilty of the lesser charge of dangerous operation of a vessel, or acquit him.

As Justice Stromberg-Stein neared the end of her charge, she spent considerable time on the fate of passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette. Their bodies have not been recovered, and what exactly happened to them remains a mystery.

Defence lawyer Glen Orris suggested this uncertainly may raise a reasonable doubt about their disappearance.

The judge recited numerous passenger and crew counts by those on board the Queen of the North, resulting in numbers that kept fluctuating in the chaos of leaving the ship. There were also reports that Mr. Foisy was seen among passengers taken from lifeboats to nearby Hartley Bay.

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

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