A Maine fishing boat captain whose craft capsized in a storm after an evening of drinking and drug use pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges that he caused the deaths of his two crew members in 2014.
Christopher A. Hutchinson, 30, of Cushing agreed to a four-year prison sentence for two counts of seaman’s manslaughter, charges filed under a little-used statute dating to the 1880s. It establishes criminal misconduct or negligence for the captain of a vessel.
The bodies of 27-year-old Tom Hammond and 15-year-old Tyler Sawyer were never found.
Hutchinson, who has been held at the Cumberland County Jail, appeared in court wearing an orange jumpsuit. He spoke only to answer the judge’s questions.
The deal that included the guilty plea calls for a 48-month sentence with credit for time served. Upon release, Hutchinson would be subject to supervised release for three years.
A federal judge needs to approve the plea agreement and proposed sentence.
But Sawyer’s stepmother objected to the deal in court and asked for a more severe punishment.
During the hearing Tuesday, Amie Sawyer told the judge that she wanted to see at least two more years added to the sentence, along with a provision that would take away Hutchinson’s fishing licenses.
“I think for two lives, that’s nothing,” Amie Sawyer said during the hearing.
She spoke quickly, reading from a typed statement, choking back tears. She talked about the firsts she and her husband will not be able to experience with their son, like seeing him get his driver’s license and have children.
“We do not have any closure,” Amie Sawyer said. “I relive the death of my son every day.”
She also noted that Hutchinson had admitted to overdosing on heroin last year and had his bail revoked. She called addiction “a horrible disease” and asked for Hutchinson’s fishing license to be taken away so no other families would experience what hers has.
Hutchinson was the captain of the lobster boat No Limits, which sank near Matinicus Island in a storm Nov. 1, 2014. Court documents allege that he purchased 20, 30-milligram oxycodone pills from two separate drug dealers, smoked marijuana with Sawyer’s father, and drank a rum and coke at a Rockland restaurant on Halloween 2014. He then departed on a fishing trip at 1 a.m. from Linda Bean’s dock in Tenants Harbor. Rain was beginning to fall, and the forecast called for a gale.
As the winds gusted and the waves topped 14 feet, the 45-foot vessel flipped. An emergency radio beacon activated at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 1. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter found Hutchinson in a life raft without a survival suit or life preserver at 4 p.m. The bow of the No Limits was spotted by the helicopter at 5 p.m. with no signs of life. The helicopter flew Hutchinson to the hospital for treatment.
The Coast Guard issued letters of presumed death for both men late in November 2014. Federal prosecutors charged Hutchinson in 2016, and he faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Blood tests conducted that night revealed Hutchinson had oxycodone and marijuana in his system. However, in January, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Attorney’s Office could not use the results of those tests at trial unless Hutchinson testified that he did not use any drugs.
Travis Sawyer, Tyler Sawyer’s father, told the Coast Guard that Hutchinson had purchased oxycodone the day before the boat sank and should be tested for drugs. Law enforcement took a blood sample from Hutchinson before he was released from Maine Medical Center in Portland. The judge ultimately said that investigators failed to obtain a warrant and did not have probable cause to take the sample.
The prosecutors filed an appeal of that decision, and then withdrew it.
Jury selection was scheduled for next week until the parties filed their plea agreement with the court this month.
U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby ordered a pre-sentence report, which he will review along with the plea agreement. If he disagrees with the sentence, he could reject the deal, which would send the case to trial.
Hutchinson’s attorney, Michael Turndorf, said he believes the proposed sentence was appropriate, but he knows nothing can replace the two victims.
“It’s a tough case all the way around,” he said.
U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank declined to comment until after the sentencing.
Christopher Hutchinson (Portland Press Herald file photo)
Tyler Sawyer (Portland Press Herald file photo)
Thomas Hammond (Portland Press Herald file photo)