HOLLIDAYSBURG - A Blair County jury has found a Hollidaysburg man not guilty of operating a watercraft on the flood-swollen Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River a year ago while under the influence of alcohol.
The jury deliberated the case for more than three hours Friday before it determined that Douglas Alan Williams, 25, was not under the influence Sept. 8, 2011, when a raft carrying him and a friend, Charles L. Sweeney, 25, also of Hollidaysburg, became stuck on a log in the river.
The two men were taking a five-mile trek down the river from Monastery Road to Reservoir Road and had been on the river for about three hours when the raft became stuck. They got out of the raft and while Williams worked to free it, Sweeney found his way across the river to a nearby highway.
When the raft was finally free, Williams continued the trip but couldn't find Sweeney.
Concerned about his friend, he went to his home on Gail Street and called 911.
A search, which included the River Rescue Team from the Geeseytown Community Fire Department, emergency medical personnel, representatives from the state Fish & Boat Commissions and police, was launched.
Geeseytown Fire Chief Dennis Walls said the water was "well-above" its normal flow that day.
He said the water was "very fast" and that it was dark out.
The rescuers had to set up lights and a command center on River Road, Frankstown Township.
Just as they were ready to push into the water in search of Sweeney, a driver came by and stated that a man was seen walking on the road not far from the command center.
It turned out to be Sweeney, Walls said.
He was "wet, disheveled, confused. His feet had no shoes, his socks were half off. He's not in a normal appearance. He [had been] in the water somewhere," Walls said.
Sweeney was suffering from hypothermia and was transported to Nason Hospital, Roaring Spring, for treatment, said Walls.
When he took the witness stand, Sweeney told jurors that he and Williams each had been drinking pints of vodka they had purchased prior to entering the river. He said he had consumed his pint, and he said that Williams was drinking, like him, the whole time they were on the raft.
Williams told a much different story, noting that he had nothing to drink until the trip was over and he went to his Hollidaysburg home to call 911.
By the time police arrived at his house, Williams had consumed alcohol and he, like Sweeney, was charged with operating of a watercraft while under the influence.
Williams' defense attorneys, John Siford and Kristen Anastasi, said a key defense was the 911 recording of Williams' call for help.
Williams was not excited and was able to explain what occurred on the river, outlining the problems with the boat and the fact he and Sweeney became separated.
His voice was concise, and at the end of the call, in asking for help, he said, "Thank you very much."
The defense contended Williams was clear-minded and not under the influence.
The jury found Williams not guilty of operating a watercraft under the influence and reckless operation of a watercraft. Blair County Judge Daniel Milliron also found Williams not guilty of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
Sweeney is in the county's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for operating a watercraft under the influence and other charges. If Sweeney successfully completes ARD, his record will be cleared.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.