Trial ordered for family members of victims in fatal watercraft crash | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Trial ordered for family members of victims in fatal watercraft crash

William Ferchland

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune file / The two personal watercraft involved in the accident in which two teens died sit at the beach at Ski Run Marina.

More than a year after 6-year-old Jordan Cockrell and 14-year-old Ashley Wagoner died in the waters of Lake Tahoe following a personal watercraft accident, two of their family members charged with vehicular manslaughter and child cruelty appeared in court.

Brothers Dennis and Gary Cockrell were flanked by their attorneys Thursday in a preliminary hearing during which two South Lake Tahoe police officers described their investigation of the accident off Ski Run Marina on July 19, 2004. At the end of the hearing, the men were ordered to stand trial on two felony counts of child cruelty and a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Thomas Smith threw out the vehicular manslaughter charges.

Much of the focus during the hearing centered on rental forms signed by Dennis and Gary Cockrell. California law states an operator of a personal watercraft must be at least 16 years old. If a passenger is on board, the driver must be at least 18.

Testimony by South Lake Tahoe marine officer Steve O’Brien revealed the family attempted to rent personal watercraft at a North Shore business but were refused when a clerk discovered underage teenagers would likely operate the machines.

That same day, the clan went to South Shore, where they successfully rented four personal watercraft. One was ridden by Ashley with Jordan sitting in front of her.

Another was driven by 15-year-old Derrick Cockrell, Dennis’ son, who sat idle on his Jet Ski when he was struck by the watercraft occupied by Jordan and Ashley.

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All three went into the water. Only Derrick survived the crash. He suffered a bruised right knee. Ashley drowned but the coroner believed she might have been unconscious or had the wind knocked out of her. Jordan died from bleeding in his brain.

Jordan was the son of Gary Cockrell, who also had guardianship of his niece, Ashley, whose parents were in Barstow at the time of the incident.

El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said the two brothers were intent on getting personal watercraft for underage family members and their intentions led to the death of Jordan and Ashley.

“Your honor, this all happened because two gentlemen agreed to lie,” Uthe said.

Steve O’Brien, a South Lake Tahoe marine police officer in the summer, testified marina staff didn’t suspect Derrick and Ashley were not of legal age.

“(One employee) said he did not suspect (Ashley) to be under the age of 18,” he said.

Attorneys for the Cockrells said the negligence landed on marina staff rather than their clients.

“Is there anything on this form to identify or distinguish who is going to be a driver and who is going to be a passenger?” asked Don Heape, Dennis Cockrell’s attorney.

“No,” replied O’Brien.

Heape said both Dennis and Gary Cockrell were not present when family members were assigned to personal watercraft by marina staff.

Thomas Kolpacoff, Gary Cockrell’s attorney, also touched on the strategy of staff carelessness in allowing the minors to operate personal watercraft.

“Ashley was not 18?” Kolpacoff asked O’Brien.

“That’s correct,” O’Brien said.

“Is that an improper thing for them to do?” Kolpacoff said.

“Absolutely,” O’Brien said.

Both sides questioned O’Brien on the maneuverability of Jet Skis, such as the difficulty in making them stop, and the process in filling out rental forms.

Both Cockrells are next scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 16 at 10 a.m. for an arraignment.