Authorities are frustrated with the case of a single-boat crash on the St. Croix River near Bayport over the weekend.
Both occupants of the boat were located safely, but not until after emergency personnel spent extensive time and effort searching the river with divers, sonar, drag equipment and a helicopter for an occupant reported missing — only to discover he was safe but didn’t contact law enforcement for more than 24 hours.
With no witnesses except the two boat occupants, authorities have many questions, but say charges are unlikely.
Around 2:50 a.m. on Sunday, April 23, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was called to the St. Croix River on a report of someone yelling south of the Bayport Marina. The caller had previously seen an “erratic” boat leaving.
When deputies arrived, they found a 52-foot yacht, the “Bromance,” sinking in about 10 feet of water, about 50-75 yards from shore, just south of the marina. The boat is registered to Kevin Michael Mach, of Minneapolis.
Deputies found Kristin Erickson, 35, of Minneapolis on shore. She appeared to be wet, muddy and heavily intoxicated, according to the police report.
Erickson told deputies her boyfriend, Jason Elgersma, 36, of Minneapolis, had been driving the boat when it crashed into shore and began taking on water. She said they stayed on the boat 15 minutes before deciding to get off, and she put a life jacket on and swam to shore.
Erickson initially said Elgersma made it to shore but changed her story multiple times, eventually claiming she last saw him on the boat and wasn’t sure if he made it ashore, the police report says.
Damage on shore was consistent with a crash. There was an “extremely high level of damage,” and “some of the trees were even uprooted,” the police report says. There were tree branches in the boat.
Deputies also found a dinghy beached at the site of the apparent impact on shore.
“It appears [the yacht] entered the shoreline, made contact with the ground — possibly the dinghy fell off at that time — and then it went out into the bay there and started taking on water,” said Commander Andy Ellickson of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
On shore nearby, law enforcement found a duffel bag containing wet clothing, an iPhone, a wallet, $2,007 cash and an expired Wisconsin Driver’s license and passport belonging to Elgersma.
When authorities couldn’t locate Elgersma, they reported him missing and began searching the river and surrounding area. They also checked his Minneapolis home and Bloomington business. They continued searching the river until late afternoon April 23, according to Ellickson.
Deputies learned Elgersma had an active Hennepin County warrant for his arrest after failing to appear at a hearing related to a third-degree DWI conviction from 2015. Court records indicate he had also been convicted of third-degree DWI in 2009.
On Monday, April 24, a Stillwater attorney, who had been hired that morning, contacted authorities to confirm that Elgersma, his client, was alive and well. By the evening, Elgersma turned himself in on the warrant but would not give a statement regarding the boat crash, according to Ellickson.
Without a statement from Elgersma, Ellickson said charges are unlikely. Authorities can’t prove Elgersma was the driver or determine whether alcohol was involved, Ellickson said, and it appears the boat was being used with the owner’s permission.
“We have no third party, independent witness that would put him behind the wheel,” Elllickson said. “So there’s just too many gaps in the elements required by the statute.”
While he may not face charges, Ellickson said Elgersma will have to deal with the “court of public opinion.”
The cost of the response to the incident is difficult to pinpoint.
“It’s hard to quantify the number of personnel out there, the equipment we use and the risk to their safety out there,” Ellickson said. “It’s thousand of dollars, I think it’s safe to say.”
He said the sheriff’s office won’t try to recover the cost of the search.
“It is upsetting that our people were put in jeopardy and we used a lot of time, money and effort to do this, but that is just something we are expected to do,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ellickson is frustrated by the situation.
“It is frustrating for law enforcement in these cases,” he said. “When it seems that there was some deception involved, it’s unfortunate.”
Other agencies involved in the response included the Bayport Police Department; Lakeview EMS; and the Bayport, Stillwater, Lower St. Croix Valley, Woodbury and Scandia fire departments.
Bayport Fire Chief Allen Eisinger said his department expects to bill Elgersma for some of the costs his department incurred.
“We do have a method of billing people,” he said.
Eisinger wasn’t certain how likely the department was to receive payment. He said it’s unusual to bill for a response, but there is a process for doing so in extraordinary cases, typically when the costs could have been prevented.
Stillwater City Administrator Tom McCarty said Stillwater’s fire department spent about an hour and a half on the mutual aid response to the incident, and the cost was about $1,000. The city looked into the possibility of seeking reimbursement, but McCarty said April 28 that legal counsel advised him it would be difficult to bill for costs unless there were a criminal case.
“If a criminal case is filed, we’ll file for restitution,” McCarty said.
Elgersma’s attorney, Eric Thole, issued the following statement on behalf of his client:
“Jason appreciates all the concern people have had for his well-being, and he wants to thank the outstanding efforts of the local rescue operation. Jason understands that those rescue efforts came at a cost to the taxpayers, so he’s looking into how he can reimburse them.”
Eisinger, whose volunteer firefighters were called to the scene for an early morning search and left without success, said the problem isn’t only the money.
“It’s emotional trauma for the guys,” he said. “It’s pretty discouraging when you’re packing up — are you leaving a dead person in the river? It takes an emotional toll.”
Situations like this also put emergency responders at risk, Eisinger said, as well as members of the public who are on the roads when emergency vehicles respond to a scene quickly.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]
Note: This story has been updated.