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Minnesota boater convicted in fatal 2013 crash on St. Croix

A Minnesota man who was at the helm of his boat during a fatal crash in 2013 pleaded guilty last week in Pierce County District Court.

Patrick A. Puhalla, 49, 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.

A plea deal presented in court calls for the Bayport, Minn., man to spend one year in jail on home monitoring and five years on probation. The deal also stipulates that Puhalla attend a victim impact panel on the anniversary of David J. Riley’s death and spend 10 hours a month performing community service.

Three other counts were dismissed at the hearing by Pepin County Circuit Court Judge James Duvall.

Puhalla will be sentenced Aug. 12.

He was accused in a criminal complaint of having a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 at the time of the June 5, 2013, crash that killed Riley, of New Richmond.

The complaint states Puhalla, Riley and a third man, Daniel Schulte of Hudson, were returning up the St. Croix River from a riverside bar in Prescott when Puhalla’s boat crashed into the shore near Kinnickinnic State Park.

Puhalla told Pierce County sheriff’s investigators that he had installed a $20,000 radar-aided navigation system on the boat the weekend before the crash. Another man who was on board during the crash said Puhalla brought the boat up to about 30-35 mph after clearing a no-wake zone when he suddenly saw a rock cliff directly in front of the bow and called out, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Puhalla told investigators the boat was engulfed in darkness at the time of the crash and he was attempting to steer it based on the radar read-out. Puhalla said the radar map “split” moments before the crash, according to the complaint. Puhalla admitted to investigators that he didn’t have a chance to grab the boat’s steering wheel as it crashed into land.

Riley, 40, was pronounced dead on scene. He served as harbormaster at Windmill Marina in Afton.

The other passenger, Schulte, sustained injuries to his ribs, arms and legs in the crash, according to the complaint. Puhalla sustained injuries to legs, ribs and spine as a result of the crash.

The complaint states the Prescott trip was a regular Wednesday-night routine for the three friends. For 10 years, the trio had taken boat rides from an Afton, Minn., marina to Boat Drinks in Prescott, before returning back upriver to Windmill Marina.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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