Rescuer describes boating accident victim's dying moments 3 ordered to stand trial in death of Pineview swimmer
OGDEN — Esther Fujimoto often swam in Pineview Reservoir with her sister. Quick and able in the water, her family said she was bright and intelligent, concerned for her fellow man.
Her work as a University of Utah molecular biologist and cancer researcher reflected that, they said.
Vaughn Anderson had seen Fujimoto before, enough to know her uniform of a black swimsuit and swim cap. Her presence in the waters of Pineview Reservoir, just walking distance from Anderson's home, was not unusual.
But nothing could have prepared him for the way he found her on Aug. 21, 2011, when the 49-year-old was left critically injured in the water and struggling for her life.
During a preliminary hearing Thursday, he testified about what happened that evening and his efforts to get Fujimoto help before she died.
His testimony and that of others convinced a judge to order Colton Raines, 22, Skyler Shepherd, 22, and Robert Cole Boyer, 30, to stand trial in Fujimoto's death. All are charged with obstruction of justice, a class A misdemeanor. Raines and Shepherd are also charged with reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor, and failure to render aid, a class B misdemeanor.
Anderson said he was on the patio of his home around 8:30 p.m. when he heard something very different than the sounds of boats and children swimming — the "background noise" he was accustomed to, living so close to the Spring Creek area of the reservoir.
"I heard what sounded like a woman screaming," he said. "Three to five terrifying, blood-curdling screams — like someone who was in complete agony."
He said he ran closer to the water and saw a boat stop. Its occupants leaned over and asked: "Hey, lady, are you OK?" Anderson could not see who they were talking to until the boat left "at a high rate of speed."
"To get the hell out of dodge!" he would explain it, minutes later, in a call to 911.
Anderson said he saw a head bobbing in the water. He jumped in his rowboat and rowed the 200 yards to the victim.
"When I arrived to her side, she had her arms out, helping herself up with her hands," he said. "And I saw her torso was all messed up."
He realized her injuries were severe and asked her if she was all right. In a "very faint voice," Anderson said Fujimoto twice asked him to help her. He took one of her hands and she grabbed on to the boat with the other as Anderson called 911.
In the frantic, urgent and emotional call, he pleaded for help, repeatedly checking with Fujimoto and expressing his frustration as he waited for help while her head went under water and he tried to keep her afloat.
"Her eyes are open, but she's not doing nothing," he said toward the end of the call, as he started to cry.
"Can you tell if she's breathing?" the dispatcher asked.
"It don't look like it," Anderson replied, now sobbing.
Prosecutors said Boyer, Raines and Shepherd took their boat from the water, toweled it off and waited to leave the area, which had been closed by detectives from the Weber County Sheriff's Office, who were investigating the incident. In a conversation with police five days later on Aug. 26, Shepherd said he was at Pineview with his boat the day Fujimoto died, but that he was not involved in a collision, deputy Don Kelly testified.
On Aug. 29, Shepherd met with investigators again, deciding that "a man's got to make things right" and told them that he and several others were wakeboarding and doing some drinking on Aug. 21.
Other witnesses wrote in written statements that Raines and Boyer also smoked marijuana that day, although detectives said this was not apparent in blood tests taken about 10 days later.
Shepherd told Kelly that he was on the boat with Raines and Boyer at the end of the day, when Raines, who was driving, suggested one last loop through Spring Creek. He said Raines swerved at one point, stopped the boat, threw up his hands and asked, "Did you see that?" and said there had been a woman in the water.
Raines was upset to the point that he couldn't drive, so Shepherd told Kelly he took the wheel and circled back to where Fujimoto was and asked her if she was OK. He said the woman answered that she was, but that she appeared upset, prompting them to leave.
"He said he was fearful," Kelly said of Shepherd's explanation for not sharing this with police at the scene. "They were fearful something had happened and that's why they didn't say anything.
"They coordinated a story where they were not involved."
Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner, testified that Fujimoto suffered "multiple chopping injuries" consistent with being struck by a propeller and ultimately bled to death.
"I think these would be horribly painful injuries," Grey said, adding that it was "highly improbable" that someone who suffered such injuries would report that they were OK. "She would be in excruciating pain."
A major artery in Fujimoto's leg was severed, prompting defense attorneys to question whether aid from their clients would have saved Fujimoto's life. They told the judge that there was no evidence that the men acted recklessly, only that they failed to offer help.
"By leaving her there in the water, (they) sealed her fate," prosecutor Dean Saunders contended.
"There is nothing these boys could have done to save her life," defense attorney Glen Neeley countered. "Her fate was sealed when she was hit."
After the hearing, Fujimoto's brother, Andy, thanked Utah legislators for a change made in the 2012 session that requires boaters to wait for emergency help if they hit someone in the water. He also praised Vaughn Anderson and said the world could use more people like him.
But nothing will bring his sister back, he said.
"I'm interested in justice being served," he said. "I can understand an accident, but disregard for human life — that I have an issue with," he said.
All of the men pleaded not guilty Thursday. Their next court date is slated for Aug. 13.
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