Boat crash leads to BUI charge

Published online: Sep 21, 2009 News MILLARD K. IVES
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A 51-year-old man has been charged with boating under the influence after he plowed his pontoon boat into a dock on Lake Harris, in Leesburg, Florida, late Wednesday night.

Authorities were still looking for his female passenger Thursday evening. They do not believe she fell in the water, but rather just failed to wait for deputies to arrive on the scene.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official said a Crystal Breeze Lane resident was watching television about 11 p.m. when he heard a loud noise.

When he walked outside, he saw a pontoon boat had crashed into his dock with a woman on board.

But when the resident, Travis Sawchuk, stepped onto the boat to help the still unidentified woman, he almost tripped over Michael Robert Smith, 51, who was lying down in the boat and incoherent, said Joy Hill, FWC spokeswoman.

According to a Lake County Sheriff's Office report, Sawchuk ran back into his home to ask his wife to call for help. When he came back, the woman was missing.

The report adds that Smith was trying to back up his boat from what Sawchuk's 21-year-old son described as a heap of crumpled planks from the dock.

Smith apparently had bounced off some nearby cypress trees before hitting the dock.

The elder Sawchuk tied the boat to the dock to prevent Smith from leaving.

"He was really afraid he was going to hurt himself," said Austin Sawchuk, Travis Sawchuk's son, on Thursday as he looked at about 20 feet of missing dock where he fishes for bass.

Travis Sawchuk said he knows Smith through a previous business transaction with his company, Travis Sawchuk Commercial 1st Realty Inc.

The sheriff's report adds when deputies arrived on the scene, they spotted Smith several houses over and walking away.

Smith was treated at Leesburg Regional Medical Center for minor injuries. He was then booked on the BUI charge after he failed sobriety tests and refused to take a blood alcohol test, Hill said.

Smith told deputies he had fallen asleep before the crash.

Smith bonded out of jail early Thursday morning. With some help, he was seen towing his vessel with another boat Thursday afternoon.

Hill said it's not clear where the woman passenger is, but they believe she ran from the crash. Smith told officials there was no woman on the boat. But Austin said his father heard a woman scream and saw her bent over in the boat holding her stomach, as if she were about to vomit.

Cpl. James Vachon, sheriff's spokesman, said officials searched the lake by air, but discontinued the water search amid reports she had run off.

"We don't believe anyone fell in the water," Hill said.

Deputies also used bloodhounds on the ground and checked the local hospitals and cab companies.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the woman is asked to call FWC at (888) 404-3922 or the Lake County Sheriff's Office at (352) 343-9500.

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