Vital evidence, eyewitnesses at stake in fatal Lake Murray drunk boating trial

For two families, it was a normal Saturday night on Lake Murray.

But as the Kiser family navigated their pontoon boat near the Lighthouse Marina, a speedboat slammed into their vessel. Stan Kiser was killed instantly. His wife, Shawn, suffered severe injuries to one leg, which was amputated. Their daughter, Morgan, suffered head wounds.

Stan Kiser’s wounds were the worst she’d ever seen, remarked the forensic pathologist who performed his autopsy.

Tracy Gordon, who was piloting the Baja “cigarette boat” was charged with reckless homicide by operation of a boat and three counts of boating under the influence. Nearly four years after the crash, he is on trial on the Richland County courthouse.

His attorneys have admitted he consumed up to eight beers over the course of the day on Sept. 21, 2019, but they have maintained he was not impaired at the time of the crash. He did not see the pontoon boat as he, with his wife onboard, accelerated out of the no-wake zone in front of the Lighthouse Marina.

The case has captured the attention of many in the Midlands, where Lake Murray attracts thousands of boaters each year. Shawn Kiser’s recovery drew statewide attention in March 2020 when USC women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley walked across the court during halftime of a game with Kiser, who was wearing a prosthetic leg.

On Friday afternoon, the prosecution rested its case, which included the 911 call from the scene of the crash, emotional testimony from the Kisers as well as law enforcement and forensic experts.

But the case could hinge on an early win by the defense, which was able to suppress Gordon’s blood alcohol content, which was obtained through a court-ordered blood draw. The affidavit provided by the arresting officer as part of the court order was unsigned.

While prosecutors argued that there was a good faith exception to the rule, Circuit Court Judge Heath Taylorultimately sided with the defense, ruling that the affidavit was defective.

“I don’t have any choice but to suppress” the blood test, Taylor told the attorneys, after a ninety minute back and forth by attorneys without the jury present.

Gorgon’s blood was obtained when a judge signed a search warrant after Gordon refused to take a DataMaster test, more commonly known as a Breathalyzer, or to have his blood drawn. Gordon smelled of alcohol and gave numerous indicators of intoxication during some field sobriety tests, said Department of Natural Resources Lt. Corporal Marion Baker, who arrested Gordon.

But the ruling could not stop the testimony from Gordon’s wife, Angie, who appeared under subpoena from the prosecutors. In a lengthy direct examination by Deputy Solicitor Dan Goldberg, which took up Thursday afternoon and went up to lunch Friday, Gordon’s wife of eleven years described them as a private couple whose life revolved around routine, family and Lake Murray.

While spousal privilege laws protects married couples from testifying about communications between each other, Angie Gordon had previously given a deposition about the day’s events as part of an ongoing civil case.

On the stand, she testified that the couple boated on the lake every Saturday when the weather was good. They followed the same routine every time, she told the jury, from her husband packing the cooler, consuming the same brand of beer, and parking the boat at Catfish Johnny’s, a waterside bar they often frequented.

It was normal for the couple to drink three to four Natural Light beers on the lake she told Deputy Solicitor Dan Goldberg on direct examination.

But on the day of the fatal crash, however, she admitted that Gordon had drunk eight light beers over the course of the day. On cross examination she stated that her earlier statement was confined just to drinks they had on the water.

After setting out around 1 p.m., the couple drank two beers after anchoring at a bay, she told the jury.

They then had another beer while they motored around a cove looking for the home belonging to then-University of South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp. The couple alternated drinking water and Gatorade with their beers, as was their practice, she said.

They then went to Liberty Tap Room & Grill’s location on Lake Murray, where Gordon drank three 16 ounce drafts of Michelob Ultra beer.

After motoring back out to watch the sunset, but Angie Gordon denied that the couple had another drink. They were preparing to return to the dock where they kept their boat when she suggested that they depart from their usual routine.

Instead of taking the boat directly back to the boat ramp, she suggested they drive over to Catfish Johnny’s, a spin-off of the popular Lake Murrary outpost, The Rusty Anchor, to see if the Clemson game was playing or catch the band. It might be the last time they could use the boat for a while as it needed to be taken back to a shop after it sprung a leak.

Once there, they each drank one more Coors Light Beer, she said. CCTV video from the bar appeared to show TracyGordon drinking from his wife’s beer, which she insisted was just a mix-up.

The dock manager at the Lighthouse Marina, which sits next to Catfish Johnny’s and the Rusty Anchor, said that he did not believe they appeared drunk nor had he ever been concerned by Tracy Gordon’s alcohol level.

He seemed, “completely natural and normal,” said dock manager Mark Passmore, who said he knew the Gordons as regular customers and the marina and restaurants.

But just minutes later, the Baja speedboat plowed into the Kiser’s pontoon boat. One eyewitness described the scene as “horrific.”

Stan Kiser suffered immediate and devastating injuries, according to Dr. Amy Durso, a forensic pathologist who performed his autopsy for the Richland County Coroner’s Office. The speedboat’s propeller brutalized his body with “chop wounds” to his skull, torso, legs and arms that left multiple “very deep” cuts that fractured bone and “shredded” muscle, Durso said.

Durso’s testimony, which defense attorney Joe McCulloch called “prejudicial” during an objection, elicited sobs from the family and friends of the victim, who have filled the gallery every day of the trial, which began Monday. One juror was even seen to be crying, McCulloch told the court.

The instrumentation panel and steering mechanism of the pontoon boat were “sheared” to the outside of the vehicle, said state Department of Natural Resources officer Gilmore Stevens.

It is unknown just how fast the Gordon’s boat was traveling at the time of the crash. One eyewitness estimated that the boat was going 25 miles per hour as it exited the no-wake zone.

On the stand Gordon said that her husband was trying to “get on plane,” meaning that the heavy speedboat accelerated, lifting the nose up before it leveled out for a smoother ride. Testimony from one investigator raised the question of whether the speedboat’s “trim tabs” were in a downward position, which would have allowed it to get on plane at a lower speed.

On the stand, Angie Gordon said her husband attempted to turn the boat to the right to avoid the crash. They could hear screams across the water and someone yelling “my dad’s dead.” When her husband asked if he should call 911, they heard a voice say that they were already on the line.

Angie Gordon said she was the one who insisted they not go over to the crash site.

“I was scared,” she said. “I was just in panic mode. I just knew that we had collided with another boat.”

After the wreck, Baker of the state DNR said that he detected the smell of alcohol on Tracy Gordon, which other officers confirmed. The officer then administered a battery of seated sobriety tests. These included examining Gordon’s eyes for uncontrolled movements, known as nystagmus, and having him touch the tip of his nose with his pointer fingers.

While Gordon would pass standing tests, he offered enough indicators during the seated tests for the officers to place him under arrest.

“The totality of circumstances determined that his faculties were materially and crucially impaired. He was under the influence of alcohol,” Baker testified. “He was cooperative, but appeared indifferent. He almost had a thousand yard stare, everything we said went in one ear and out the other.”

Among other testimony, a retired crash expert from the South Carolina Highway Patrol and a FBI metallurgist testified that there was no way to conclusively say whether the pontoon boat’s running lights were on or off at the time of the crash. The defense has also raised the possibility that a gate on the pontoon boat was blocking the view of the running lights.

The case is being prosecuted by Goldberg, a Deputy Solicitor with the Fifth Circuit Solicitors Office, and Assistant Solicitor Carter Potts. Gordon is being represented by Jack Swerling, Joe McCulloch, Alissa Wilson and Will DuBose.

The case case will continue into an unexpected second week.