'I deeply regret this tragic accident': Ferry navigator delivers tearful apology

VANCOUVER – The disgraced mariner who was in control of the Queen of the North passenger ferry when it sank off British Columbia’s coast, leaving two passengers dead, delivered a tearful apology Friday at a sentencing hearing in which his lawyer urged a judge to spare him from prison.

Karl Lilgert directed his brief statement to the web of people whose lives have been changed by the sinking: the families of missing passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette; the surviving passengers and crew; and his own family, which has been ripped apart by a seven-year legal odyssey that cost him his job, his home and exposed the intimate details of an illicit affair to the world.

“I recognize that by saying I’m deeply sorry, it might not be enough or sufficient to address the pain and hurt,” said Lilgert, who spoke softly and struggled to get through his apology.

“I deeply regret this tragic accident and its impact on so many people. To those who lost loved ones, to the families and friends of Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, I express my deep regret and sorrow. … I will carry the sorrow and grief I feel for the rest of my life. It is my sincere hope that all involved can move forward with their lives.”

The apology came at the end of a sentencing hearing that saw the Crown and defence put forward competing images of Lilgert, who was described as either a reckless, unrepentant liar or the guilt-ridden, broken shell of a once-proud mariner.

A Crown lawyer recommended a six-year prison sentence, telling the judge Lilgert has spent years lying about what happened and blaming others for his own negligence.

Lilgert’s lawyers, in turn, asked for a conditional sentence of nearly two years that would allow him to avoid time in custody and get on with his life. The defence cast Lilgert as a fragile man who has suffered personally and financially since the sinking.

The judge in the case is scheduled to announce a sentence on Monday.

A jury convicted Lilgert for the deaths of Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who vanished when the ferry struck a remote island and sank off the British Columbia coast in the early morning of March 22, 2006.

The Crown alleged at trial that Lilgert, who was in charge as fourth officer, failed to navigate the ship or take any steps to ensure the vessel was on course as it missed a scheduled turn and sailed toward the island.

Lilgert, 59, testified in his own defence, telling the jury he was doing the best he could to navigate and track the ship in spite of rough weather and unreliable equipment.

But the Crown told a judge Friday that Lilgert’s testimony was full of lies, which the jury obviously did not believe.

“The accused did not tell the truth on the stand, was disbelieved by the jury, has failed to take responsibility, and lacks genuine remorse,” said Crown counsel Robert Wright.

“The jury must have found that the accused failed to navigate the vessel in any meaningful manner and exhibited a complete failure to pay attention for any meaningful time.”

Wright said Lilgert’s sentence must be severe to reflect the reality that he was a trained professional who was entrusted with the lives of 101 passengers and crew, but who failed to live up to that responsibility.

“That trust was misplaced for some unknown, seemingly personal matter,” said Wright.

Wright’s reference to a “personal matter” was an allusion to Lilgert’s affair with the other crew member on the bridge, quartermaster Karen Briker.

The affair had ended several weeks before the sinking, but Lilgert and Briker both insisted their relationship had nothing to do with the sinking. A prosecutor accused Lilgert of either having sex or arguing with Briker before the collision, which he denied.

The Crown’s recommendation of a six-year sentence also included a lifetime ban on operating a vessel.

The defence asked for a conditional sentence of nearly two years, telling the judge there is no need to send Lilgert to prison.

Glen Orris said the jury clearly struggled with the evidence, reaching a verdict only after deliberating for six days and asking several questions of the judge. He also argued the jurors could have actually believed Lilgert’s testimony and still convicted him, if they concluded he did not properly follow navigation regulations.

Another defence lawyer, Nancy Adams, said Lilgert has suffered greatly since the sinking, and that the seven years of investigations, lawsuits, criminal proceedings and intense media scrutiny have been punishment enough.

After the sinking, Lilgert and his family moved away from their longtime home near the coastal community of Prince Rupert to Grand Forks in southeastern B.C., said Adams. His marriage has since fallen apart, she said, and he has been forced to sell his organic farm in Grand Forks to pay for his legal bills.

He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Adams, which he treats with psychiatric help and medication.

“He has already endured what amounts to a seven-year sentence,” said Adams.

“His remorse is genuine. … He is fragile and will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life. Jail is no place for this man.”

Adams and Orris both scolded the media for perpetuating rumours that Lilgert and Briker may have been having sex when the ferry missed the turn.

Such rumours have been hanging over the sinking for years, though it was a Crown prosecutor who breathed life into the rumours at trial, asking Lilgert a direct question about whether he and Briker were having sex on the ferry’s bridge.

The Crown read several victim impact statements from relatives of Foisy and Rosette, who both had children from previous marriages and had recently moved to 100 Mile House at the time of the sinking.

The statements described the pain of not knowing how the couple died, leaving them only to imagine the fear and panic Foisy and Rosette must have felt in their final moments. They also spoke of the graduations, birthdays and weddings the couple has already missed.

Foisy’s daughter, Brittni, graduated from university just last week.

“This achievement was very difficult for me to embrace without him there to watch me cross the stage,” Brittni, 23, wrote in her statement, which was read by the Crown during Friday’s sentencing hearing.