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Boater in fatal 2013 Wisconsin crash sentenced to jail, probation

Patrick Puhalla

A Minnesota man was sentenced Wednesday in the case of a fatal 2013 St. Croix River boat crash that left his friend dead.

Patrick Puhalla, 49, of Bayport, was sentenced in Pierce County Circuit Court to six months in jail, seven years on probation and community service. He pleaded guilty May 26 to one count of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and one count of causing injury by intoxicated boat operation.

Pierce County investigators said Puhalla was at the helm of his own boat when it slammed into a rock cliff on June 6, 2013, near Kinnickinnic State Park.

The crash left David J. Riley, 40, of New Richmond, dead. Riley served as harbormaster at Windmill Marina in Afton.

Puhalla said after the crash that he was relying on a new radar system he recently had installed on the boat to navigate the craft in darkness as he, Riley and a third man, Daniel Schulte, were returning up the St. Croix River from a riverside bar in Prescott

Wednesday’s 2.5-hour sentencing hearing packed the Pierce County courtroom with about 60 people. The unusually large crowd required some attendees -- most of whom were Riley’s family and supporters -- to be seated in the jury box.

"Use your power of the law that truly provides justice for my son and not just a short time of inconvenience" for Puhalla, Sue Riley said at the hearing.

Presiding Judge James Duvall, a judge chambered in Pepin-Douglas county courts but occasionally works Pierce County cases, acknowledged the fact that the sentence did not match the punishment some in the courtroom had sought.

“Six months is not 25 years,” he said. “But to the person sitting there, it’s a long period of time.”
Puhalla, a business owner who works from his home office, will be allowed work release, Duvall decided. He will also be allowed to spend up to four hours a week with his children, according to terms of the sentence.

Puhalla will be prohibited from operating or riding in a boat for the duration of his probation. Duvall said that provision was issued out of respect to the Riley family.

“If they choose to go out” on the St. Croix River, Duvall said, acknowledging statements from the family that they’ve been unable to return to the river since Riley’s death, “I don’t want them running into Pat Puhalla yay-hooing it up.

“He lost the privilege to be out on a boat on a Saturday afternoon.”

Other terms of the sentence include 300 hours of community service and a requirement that Puhalla attend an annual victim-impact panel on the anniversary of Riley’s death.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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