Updated: Officer guilty of criminal negligence causing death in ferry sinking

VANCOUVER – The navigating officer in charge of the Queen of the North passenger ferry the moment it struck an island off the northern British Columbia coast seven years ago, sinking and leaving two passengers missing, has been convicted of criminal negligence causing death.

The jury, which heard nearly four months of testimony, had been deliberating since Tuesday. On Monday afternoon, they returned to court to ask the judge questions related to whether Lilgert directly caused the deaths of the couple.

Lilgert will be charged next month.

The Queen of the North was on a routine overnight voyage down B.C.’s Inside Passage, when, shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, the ship missed a scheduled turn in a body of water known as Wright Sound, struck Gil Island and sank. Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette have been missing ever since.

Lilgert, a deckhand who was filling in as the ship’s fourth officer, was charged in 2010 with two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

His trial began in January and heard from dozens of witnesses, including surviving passengers and crew, marine experts, and the families of Foisy and Rosette. The proceedings also revealed the intimate details of the sexual affair between Lilgert and quartermaster Karen Briker, the only other person on the bridge, which ended several weeks before the sinking.

The Crown alleged Lilgert neglected his duties when he missed the turn and then failed to take any action to avoid the island or even slow the ferry down. Prosecutors suggested Lilgert was distracted by Briker, either because they were arguing or having sex — both of which Lilgert denied.

Lilgert told the jury he was doing the best he could to navigate the ship through rough weather and around at least two boats he believed were in the area while attempting to keep the ferry a safe distance from Gil Island.

Lilgert, an experienced mariner who had logged thousands of hours working for BC Ferries, could not explain why the ferry struck the island in spite of those efforts, though his lawyers argued unreliable equipment played a significant role.

Both Lilgert and Briker each told the jury they said very little to each other while alone on the bridge. They also said there were no hard feelings after their breakup and insisted the affair played no part in the sinking.

The Crown called Lilgert a liar and accused him of conspiring with Briker to fabricate his account of what happened.

The jurors saw evidence from the ferry’s electronic chart system, a device the Crown compared to a “black box,” which kept a log of the ship’s position and course. The data were stored on a hard drive that was recovered from the ship’s wreckage.

The data indicated the ship travelled in a straight line from the point where it should have turned until it struck the island, with no significant changes in course or speed.

The Crown argued the data from the electronic chart system was proof Lilgert was not telling the truth, and instead alleged Lilgert made up one of the boats he claimed to be avoiding and exaggerated the severity of the weather at the time of the collision.

The defence suggested the data from the device was unreliable.

The Transportation Safety Board released a report into the sinking in 2008 that blamed the sinking on human error and concluded a “conversation of a personal nature” was among the factors that distracted Lilgert from his duties. The report said neither Lilgert nor Briker followed the “basic principles of safe navigation” as the ferry headed toward the island.

The trial also heard from relatives of Foisy and Rosette as the Crown attempted to prove the couple did, in fact, die in the sinking. That task was complicated by several witnesses who told the trial they thought they may have seen the couple in Hartley Bay, the small First Nations community were survivors were taken.

The Crown maintained Foisy and Rosette died in the sinking, though it’s never been clear just what happened to them, or, if they went down with the ship, why they didn’t escape the ferry with the rest of the passengers during a frantic, nighttime evacuation.

Foisy and Rosette, who each had two children, met two years before the sinking, the trial heard. Foisy was separated from his first wife, while Rosette’s husband died in a fishing accident in 2003.

The couple lived in 108 Mile House, though in the spring of 2006 they moved into an apartment in nearby 100 Mile House. They were in the process of selling their home in 108 Mile House when they disappeared.

Foisy had worked for years as a metal fabricator at a company in 100 Mile House. Rosette found temporary work as a receptionist at the Dog Creek Indian Band, her hometown.

Foisy and Rosette each had difficulty coping with the losses of their previous spouses, the trial heard, and they were both prescribed antidepressant medication. Questions were raised at trial about whether those medications could have interacted with alcohol to cause drowsiness.

Regardless of what happened to the missing passengers, what is certain is that they were never heard from after the sinking.

Foisy’s 22-year-old daughter Brittni, who lived in Penticton, B.C., with her mother and sister, said her father would visit often and they would talk on the phone several times a week. They last saw each other a week before the sinking, when Foisy, Rosette and Foisy’s brother visited Brittni and her sister.

“(Our relationship was) very close, warm, and he told both my sister and I on a number of occasions that we were his world and he would do anything for us,” Brittni Foisy told the trial in April.

“I was shocked when I hadn’t heard from him right after the accident. I knew something was wrong.”