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This dredge barge flipped on the first day of training, sending all aboard into the waters at the Guilford Yacht Club. (Photo courtesy of the Guilford Police Department )
Emergency crews search the water near the flipped dredge barge looking for James Willard. (Photo courtesy of the Guilford Police Department )
The dredge barge was removed from the water after the accident. (Photo courtesy of the Guilford Police Department )
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Nearly four months after the death of James “Jim” Willard, a 32 year-old father of two, at the Guilford Yacht Club (GYC) as a result of a dredging project gone awry, the Guilford Police Department has concluded its investigation. Police had drawn up an arrest warrant for one individual on the scene that day and were prepared to pursue criminal charges, though the State’s Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute, effectively closing the case.
While there will be no criminal charges, a civil case is still a possibility and further legal action is being considered by Willard’s family. For the public, the recently released police file answers some of the many questions—Why did a barge tip? Why were people on the water after a storm?—that circulated around social media the day of the incident and in the days that followed.
Through numerous interviews, police pieced together an image of the accident on March 3 that had emergency personal from multiple agencies searching the waters at the club for Willard by boat and helicopter amidst cold temperatures and strong winds—remnants of the previous day’s nor’easter—for hours.
March 3, 2018
On the afternoon of March 3, emergency personnel were called down to the Guilford Yacht Club (GYC) for reports of an overturned dredging barge and a possible person in the water.
The Guilford Fire Department arrived on scene first that afternoon and prepared to put dive team members in the water. Guilford Police arrived soon after and in the report, Officer Daniel Morrell stated he “observed several males who were soaking wet walking around the parking lot area” and could see the dredge barge overturned and “almost completely upside down.”
Initial reports given to officers by those on the scene varied in their description of how many people were on the barge when it flipped, making a headcount difficult. A final count was eventually determined and dive team members continued to search the waters as those who had gotten out of the water after the barge flipped were evaluated, warmed up, and interviewed by police.
The GYC had rented the dredging equipment, a Mud Cat MFD1000 dredge, from Ellicott Dredge Technologies in Wisconsin and contracted for Ellicott technicians to come out and train individuals on how to use the equipment, which is a roughly 31-foot, self-propelled barge with an attached crane. GYC contracted with Poolscape Pool & Spa, a company based in North Branford that currently takes care of the pool at the club, to operate the equipment, according to sworn testimony listed in the report.
Poolscape owner Michael Martocci gave a sworn statement to police that his company was recommended to the GYC board to do this dredging work, but he did not know by whom and that “he has not done any dredging operation prior to this. He took the job as it is the off-season and work was slower.” He said in his statement that he was told in a meeting with the yacht club board that “anyone could run the dredge to do this work” and that he and his employees would receive prior training.
Saturday, March 3 was the first day of training, as no one had worked the previous day due to the severe windstorm. According to the report, GYC member Paul MacGregor, who was on site during training, later told police he had concerns about the training taking place and that necessary safety precautions were not in place, specifically that certain stabilizing features on the dredge were not being utilized.
MacGregor later told police that he is part of a board at GYC consisting of himself, Ted Zuse, Jack Evans, and Jerry Speltz, which was tasked with coming up with a dredging plan for the year. In his statement, MacGregor said Ellicott informed the board that all work crew members would receive proper training and an operating manual, although he was unsure if operating crews received the manual.
On March 3, MacGregor was present when Ellicott employee Robert Carufel began the training, but stated to police that he “didn’t feel good about the operation while observing.” After observing that the dredge’s on-board stabilizing gear wasn’t properly deployed, MacGregor told police that he pretended to have a phone call to take “in order to excuse himself and leave.” MacGregor said in the report that just after leaving, he received a call that the dredge had rolled over.
Multiple people involved in the incident reported to the police that the dredge flipped when a piece of equipment on the dredge barge, known as the boom, was moved quickly. The dredge barge then began to roll and eventually flipped.
Martocci was thrown in the water and quickly realized that the missing person was his Poolscape employee, Willard. Martocci said in his statement that he went in the water several times “to try to find Jim, but he couldn’t because of the water being so cold.”
Once the body was recovered, a Guilford police officer who knew Willard identified his body and multiple agencies including the OSHA and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were contacted. The medical examiner later determined cause of death as blunt head and torso trauma and manner of death as an accident resulting from being pinned between the dock and capsizing boat. Willard’s toxicology report only tested positive for caffeine.
Officers contacted Willard’s wife, Michelle, who was seven months pregnant with her second child at the time. In the report, Michelle Willard said her husband had worked for Poolscape since he was 15 years old, but had no experience with dredging equipment. She and other family members described “James as being the nicest man, a great husband and father to their 3-year-old Ava, and someone who would do anything for you.”
The Dredging Project
Dredging is not a new practice for the yacht club. According to GYC Unit Owner’s Association (UOA) Board of Directors President Tom Davis, the club has engaged in dredging work routinely over at least the past 20 years to ensure boats can make it into the slips during low tide. The club pays for the permitting and the work, which Davis said has gotten more expensive over the last decade.
In October 2017, the UOA board opted to rent a dredging barge for the season (with an option to purchase) and to hire a crew to operate the equipment. According to meeting minutes, Dredge Committee Chair Ted Zuse said this option allowed the club to move the most material for the least cost. While the minutes note there was concern raised over who would operate the equipment, the plan was approved.
Davis later said the committee vetted the whole plan and was comfortable using Poolscape to complete the work as the company currently tended to the pool at the club and helped with some of the site prep work prior to the dredging this year.
Following the incident, Davis said the club made sure all parties involved—insurance companies, the Coast Guard, local police, etc.—were able to do their jobs. Later, Davis said dredge work did continue, but Poolscape employees did not carry out the work.
“Obviously the tragic aspect of someone losing his or her life—going off to work that day and not returning home—is something where everyone involved clearly wished had never happened,” Davis said. “The GYC community has issued some statements and made personal contacts with the family to let them know how sorry we are and sad that it happened.”
UOA board meeting minutes from March, April, and May indicate the board hired an attorney to act as a monitor and advisor “on matters related to the 2018 dredging program” and reviewed coverage under the existing directors and officers liability insurance to ensure that coverage extended to board committees.
Case Findings and The Future
In the weeks and months following the incident, Guilford police continued to conduct interviews and coordinate with other involved agencies. Officers looked into the equipment manual for the dredge, the contract with GYC, and the qualifications of Robert Carufel, the Ellicott trainer.
The equipment safety manual stated that all operating personnel had to first read the manual, always wear life jackets, and always anchor and stabilize the dredge. Officers decided, according to the report, that “it could reasonably be believed that Robert Carufel, being an Ellicott Dredge Technologies employee, and more specifically a documented trainer in safety operation and maintenance” should have known and enforced the safety protocols, particularly those related to stabilizing the dredge.
Guilford Police prepped an arrest warrant for Carufel, but the Office of the State’s Attorney informed Guilford Police that the office “would not be prosecuting this manner criminally.
“We worked closely with the States Attorney’s office and a determination was made that no criminal charges would be filed,” said Guilford Police Chief Jeff Hutchinson.
While criminal charges are not a possibility, Attorney John Kennedy, Jr., who represents the estate of James Willard and his widow, said civil case options are still on the table.
“It’s a tragic incident,” he said. “He [Willard] was, by all accounts a fine young man with small children, and we are looking into legal action.”
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