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Family of woman killed in boating accident copes with the heartbreak

Jury to begin deliberations in trial Friday

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 2:52 a.m. MDT

Judge Ernie W. Jones speaks to the defense attorney during the Skyler Shepherd trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.  (Kera Williams, ) Judge Ernie W. Jones speaks to the defense attorney during the Skyler Shepherd trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, )

OGDEN— Esther Fujimoto's family came from California and Hawaii and Idaho.

Not for a holiday gathering or a family reunion, though her four siblings were united. Instead, they sat together in an Ogden courtroom on a gray Thursday as advocates for their youngest sister.

Only one would take the witness stand in the trial of Skyler Shepherd, 22, who is one of three men charged in connection with Fujimoto's death while swimming at Pineview Reservoir. But all were there to send a message.

"There is an outrage, from family and friends and, I believe, society at large," Bryan Fujimoto said. "There is the outrage that these things should not go unpunished."

Judge Ernie W. Jones speaks to the attorneys during the Skyler Shepherd trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, ) Judge Ernie W. Jones speaks to the attorneys during the Skyler Shepherd trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, )

Friday a jury will be asked to determine whether there is a need for punishment when they are asked to either convict or acquit Shepherd on charges of reckless endangerment and obstruction of justice, both class A misdemeanors, as well as failure to render aid, a class B misdemeanor.

His attorney, Glen Neeley, said Shepherd did not know Esther Fujimoto was mortally wounded by the boat Shepherd, Colton Raines and Robert Cole Boyer were in on Aug. 21, 2011. But prosecutors and Fujimoto's siblings said they had to have known and sealed her fate by leaving her in the water.

A family story

The Fujimotos grew up in Eastern Idaho, swimming in canals and playing with trucks and dolls. But eventually Esther and Denice Fujimoto both came to Utah. Esther was 49 on the day she died at the lake. Denice testified Thursday that they had probably lived together for 45 of those years.

Judge Ernie W. Jones listens to testimonies from witnesses during the Skyler Shepherd trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, ) Judge Ernie W. Jones listens to testimonies from witnesses during the Skyler Shepherd trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, )

One hundred days each summer, Denice estimated, they swam together. The swims  began in the late 1990s and the pair favored Pineview Reservoir.

"Every day, seven days a week, weather conditions permitting," Bryan Fujimoto said. "I added it up and over fifteen years she probably swam there 1,000 times. … That speaks to her dedication. That speaks to who she was."

Aug. 21, 2011, was no different. Esther, a pharmacy technician at Ogden Regional Medical Center and a lab specialist at the University of Utah, got off work at Ogden Regional and the sisters drove to Pineview. By the time they had put on their wetsuits, it was 7:35 p.m.

They typically swam for two hours. They arranged to meet around 9:40 p.m. Denice is the first to concede that Esther was the stronger swimmer. Esther swam ahead.

Skyler Shepherd listens to witness testimonies during his trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, ) Skyler Shepherd listens to witness testimonies during his trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, )

Denice turned and swam away. She said she did not hear a scream, but saw police lights. She went to the beach around 9:30 p.m. and waited for her sister.

"I saw police lights, but I didn't know what happened," she said. "I didn't know until after 10 p.m."

She didn't know that a man named Vaughn Anderson had heard a scream from his porch along the reservoir's shore and saw a boat stop and ask a woman he had seen swimming before if she needed help — or that Anderson would row to Esther Fujimoto and try to save her, calling 911.

She knew when a Weber County Sheriff's detective informed her that Esther had been hit by a boat propeller. Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner, has testified that Fujimoto suffered "multiple chopping injuries" consistent with being struck by a propeller and ultimately bled to death.

Skyler Shepherd listens to witness testimonies during his trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.  (Kera Williams, ) Skyler Shepherd listens to witness testimonies during his trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, )

"I think these would be horribly painful injuries," Grey said at a prior hearing. "She would be in excruciating pain."

Sister as victim

What Bryan Fujimoto called "graphic, grotesque" photos of his sister's broken body were shown in court. This has been difficult for them to see and they know they are charged with reinforcing her memory.

"I think it's just to remember my sister not as a trial or I could even say, a piece of evidence, which has been hard, but the person she was," brother Andy Fujimoto said, pausing as his emotions caught in his throat.

He said he thinks about the "songs that will never be sung" and that the idea saddens him. He hopes that perhaps they will be sung elsewhere, or by someone else.

Skyler Shepherd listens to witness testimonies during his trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.  (Kera Williams, ) Skyler Shepherd listens to witness testimonies during his trial at the 2nd District Court in Ogden on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. (Kera Williams, )

Esther Fujimoto was 49 years old, accomplished and adept, but she was still their baby sister.

"Because she was the youngest, I remember her as the baby. I remember her always as being the younger one and that's what I always see her as," Bryan Fujimoto said. "That she would be the first one of us to die and to die in such a horrific manner … I never would have guessed in a million years."

In a video recorded interview shown Thursday, Shepherd said Raines was driving the boat on a last loop through Spring Creek when he swerved and told them he had seen a woman in the water. Shepherd said he took the helm and circled back to check on Esther Fujimoto. He said she appeared angry, but said she was OK.

"It made my blood boil," Bryan Fujimoto said. "It absolutely all spoke to everything is about me, nothing about his responsibility or his duty under the circumstances."

Esther Fujimoto, a scientist at the University of Utah, died from propeller wounds on Aug. 21, 2011, when she was hit by a boat at Pineview Reservoir. (, ) Esther Fujimoto, a scientist at the University of Utah, died from propeller wounds on Aug. 21, 2011, when she was hit by a boat at Pineview Reservoir. (, )

The water was dark, almost black, Shepherd said in the video. He did not see blood in the water.

"She never said 'help me,' never once, to us," Shepherd said in the interview.

Does Bryan Fujimoto believe that?

"Not for a second. I find that absolutely incomprehensible given everything I know about the case and everything I've heard in the three days thus far."

Cause for reflection

Andy Fujimoto said the case has caused him to reflect more than once. He has thought about if he had been in Shepherd's shoes. He has thought about if he were the man's father.

"I think of myself, if I were to hear the call for help, what would I do? And I think it causes all of us to ask that question of ourselves regardless of what occurs in this circumstance," he said. "I know that it happens and it happens in a lot of different ways and I would hope that all of us would understand the need to respond."

They know that in the courts they will find some measure of justice and that it will not be left to them to decide what that will be.

"One of the things that has been extremely difficult in this situation is not to judge," Andy Fujimoto said. "And I suspect in this venue it's not my responsibility to judge, so I suspect that I'll just leave it at that."

Neely said it's an emotional case, a sad case, and that both he and his client extend their condolences to the Fujimoto family. He said he understands the family's frustration in some sense.

"This is a 21-year-old boy that was caught in a very serious situation and I don't think he had the maturity to display what everyone wants and expects," Neeley said. "The defense is he didn't know. He felt he was being scolded by the woman and that was a mistake."

Prosecutor Dean Saunders said he was only frustrated that the law at the time only allowed for misdemeanor charges. Whatever questions and debates there were about lighting and volume and the fact that no blood evidence was found on the boat, it's a straightforward case in his mind.

"There's no way these guys didn't know," he said. "It's just inexcusable."

Bryan Fujimoto said the case has shown him some of the worst of humanity.

"It's heartbreaking. It just breaks your heart and to know that that will always be there, that will never go away," he said. "Because what happened will never go away — we will never see her like she was, walking through that front door, ever again. … It just breaks our hearts all over again or it continues to break our hearts and at this point, I will say, it probably will forever."

But Andy Fujimoto said there has been another side, too.  

"One of the things that it's clearly done is it's brought our family closer together. It's certainly given us an opportunity to see the gift of friendship as well," he said. "Amongst all the travesty, there's certainly good things that have happened, so we just look for the good."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

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