‘I did not see any lights,’ says defendant in fatal nighttime boat crash on Lake Murray

Ted Clifford/Ted Clifford

Tracy Gordon said that despite a long day of drinking, he was sober and was being careful when, around 9 p.m. on Sept. 21, 2019, he made a fateful left turn towards a familiar cove on Lake Murray.

Just seconds later, his 24-foot Baja Outlaw speedboat crashed into a 25-foot pontoon boat with three members of the Kiser family. The crash killed Stan Kiser and severely injured his wife, Shawn, who had to have a leg amputated. Their daughter, Morgan, suffered head injuries.

Gordon’s attorneys have maintained that alcohol was not a factor in the crash. Instead, they have argued it was a horrible accident caused by an especially dark night and a dim running light on the Kiser’s pontoon boat.

Gordon, testifying Tuesday in his trial on multiple charges, described his disbelief and shock, insisting that he never saw the boat until it was too late.

“I’m sitting here wondering how this happened. I’m a very safe boater,” Gordon testified. He stated that he had made that particular turn hundreds of times, including at night, when he would orient himself by the illuminated sign of Liberty on the Lake, a popular restaurant on the shore of Lake Murray.

“How many times when you’ve had eight beers over the course of the day have you made that left turn towards Liberty at night?” Deputy 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Goldberg asked during a followup cross examination Tuesday.

“That’s the only time I can remember is that night,” Gordon replied.

Gordon, 57, has been charged with reckless homicide and three counts of boating under the influence. Reckless homicide carries a potential sentence of up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000, while boating under the influence carries a fine of up to $6,000 and imprisonment for up to three years.

Defense attorneys have conceded that that Gordon drank eight beers over roughly eight hours on Sept. 21, 2019 and then drove into the Kisers’ boat.

Instead they have argued that Gordon, an experienced boater whose stepfather taught him to drive boats on lakes in the Midwest starting when he was 7 years old, was simply involved in a tragic accident. Prosecutors have pointed to Gordon’s behavior after the crash and his performance on field sobriety tests as proof that he was intoxicated.

Jurors will have to decide which argument they find more credible when they begin deliberations in the Richland County Courthouse on Wednesday morning, once they have been given instructions by Judge Heath Taylor.

Defense attorneys Jack Swerling, Joe McCulloch, Alissa Wilson and Will DuBose rested their case Tuesday after two days of testimony from eight witnesses. Among those called were friends of Gordon, employees at restaurants on Lake Murray where Gordon and his wife, Angie, dined and drank beer before the crash, expert witnesses in field sobriety tests and accident reconstruction, and Gordon himself.

Evidence of Gordon’s blood alcohol content was not allowed to be put before the jury after arresting officers failed to sign probably cause affidavit. This means the case could hinge on witnesses like Mathew Jenkins, a bartender at Liberty on the Lake, who served Gordon and his wife the night of the crash. On the stand Tuesday, Jenkins said that Gordon did not appear drunk that night.

But on cross examination by Goldberg, Jenkins conceded that “experienced drinkers” could hide their level of intoxication.

Both Liberty and the Rusty Anchor, which owns Catfish Johnny’s where Gordon also drank before the crash, were sued by the Kiser family. The case was settled in 2021.

The defense’s final witness, Michael Sutton, a forensic engineer specializing in accident reconstruction, said that based on all the evidence he had reviewed of the night, he did not believe that Gordon was acting recklessly before the crash.

“It was a very unfortunate accident with significant complicating factors,” said Sutton, who also testified for the defense during Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial earlier this year. Murdaugh, a former Hampton County lawyer, was convicted of killing his wife and son Paul.

Sutton said he based his opinion on several key factors. Among them were the unusually dark night, which had neither moon nor stars visible, and evidence indicating that the pontoon boat’s left side running light was dimmer than it should have been, which could have allowed it to blend in with background lighting from the shore.

The pontoon boat and Gordon’s Baja speedboat were approaching each other on parallel but separate trajectories, as if traveling in opposite directions on a highway, as Gordon drove up the right hand side of the channel from Catfish Johnny’s and the Rusty Anchor restaurants, where he consumed his eighth beer of the day.

Gordon testified that he did not see the lights of the pontoon boat as he made a left turn towards the illuminated sign for the Liberty on the Lake restaurant, which he was using as a landmark to navigate to the boat ramp where he planned to take his boat out of the water.

The U.S. Coast Guard mandates that boats be equipped with red and green navigation lights that can be seen up to two miles away. But the red light on the Kisers’ boat, which should have been visible to Gordon, was not in good condition, Sutton said.

“I question the performance of this particular light,” Sutton said. “I think its performance was degraded to some extent.”

Sutton said he based this opinion on the weathered condition of the red light cover, the sagging filament and the darkened condition of the inside of the bulb, which he said was caused by the tungsten filament evaporating over time. However, he was not able to test the light as the bulb had separated from the metal base, which Sutton indicated as another sign of age and wear.

Gordon testified that he did not see the Kisers’ boat until he was 15 yards away, when it was too late to stop.

Two defense witnesses also spoke to Gordon’s character, describing him as a truthful man.

“The nature of his job requires a high level of truth and integrity,” said Eudreon Curry, of Charleston, a fellow manager at the Mars dog food plant where Gordon works. “He’s always been somebody who stands on truthfulness.”