Boat owner's lawyer counters skepticism about his client

The wreck of the Mary B II washed ashore just north of the Yaquina Bay north jetty. The boat capsized on Jan. 8 while trying to enter the Yaquina Bay bar, killing all three aboard. (News-Times file photo)

Mary B. Anderson met with skepticism in Newport when she testified before a Coast Guard hearing in May that she trusted her late son, Stephen Biernacki, as a safety-conscious, experienced and conscientious captain of the Mary B II before the crabbing vessel capsized Jan. 8, killing Biernacki and two crewmen.

Her testimony came after evidence showed Biernacki had a 0.033 blood alcohol content and an impairing amount of methamphetamine in his system when he died, and witnesses testified that Biernacki was responsible for two boat groundings, seemed impaired or intoxicated in public at times, refused advice about how local conditions differed from his usual Atlantic fishing grounds, took alcohol aboard fishing boats, was fired from a captain’s job and hit a woman aboard another boat.

The Mary B II was swamped by large waves while trying to enter the Yaquina Bay bar in worsening weather, killing Biernacki, 50, and crewman James Lacey, 48, both New Jersey transplants, and Josh Porter, 50, of Toledo. Lacey had marijuana in his system. Porter was clean.

Anderson, a retired California chiropractor who owned the Mary B II through a company she ran, acknowledged she knew her son had a drunken driving conviction several years ago, and that he told her he smoked marijuana. But she testified she saw no evidence of drug use in the past five years and banned drugs and alcohol on the Mary B II.

Local reaction was summed up by Porter’s girlfriend, Denise Barrett Ramirez, who had a wedding ceremony with him in 2016 but never got a license: “Mary Anderson had been here up to a week before the accident,” Ramirez said. “She knew what her son was doing.”

Chris Reilly begged to differ. He is the Seattle maritime attorney for Anderson and her company, Mary B II LLC, which owned the boat.

“She entrusted the operation of this company to her son, and a lot of details they [Coast Guard investigators] were asking about are details she wasn’t involved in,” Reilly said. “She is getting blamed for hiring Steve with apparent flaws and all. But a very experienced company also hired him to command a vessel and get it underway, and when they found out information that caused them to second guess, who did they tell?”

Reilly and lawyers for the Porter and Lacey estates settled federal court civil action over the tragedy Sept. 27, with Anderson’s company agreeing to pay them its $500,000 liability insurance minus the company’s legal fees, leaving more than $350,000 for Porter’s and Lacey’s survivors and their lawyers.

Reilly said Anderson, who declined comment for this story, “is extremely sad. She lost a son. She thinks about it every day. She says prayers for everybody involved.”

He acknowledged Anderson’s Coast Guard hearing testimony was poorly received locally. She gave brief answers, and sometimes brusquely said she already answered a question.

“She was sitting next to her attorney and received the advice of her attorney,” Reilly said.

Anderson spent two weeks during the holidays with her son but didn’t observe Biernacki drinking or using drugs, Reilly said. After her son’s death, Anderson “cleaned out the company storage facility, and there were no pills or drugs or evidence of wrongdoing in that facility. If all these stories were true, you’d think she’d find some evidence.”

While some blame Anderson for not knowing her son used drugs and drank before the sinking, Reilly noted that a bait seller and an Oregon State Police trooper testified they saw Biernacki seeming impaired onshore in the days before the disaster, and neither reported it.

“That was great information to have after the fact,” Reilly said. “What would have been better is calling the Coast Guard and letting them know someone you observed in an impaired capacity is getting ready to cross the bar.”

The trooper, Heather Van Meter, testified that she spoke with Biernacki at the docks Jan. 7, and “he seemed really, really tired. Fishermen are pretty tired after that first week. … If there was impairment standing on the dock, that is not a crime.” Anderson testified Biernacki often slurred words because he wouldn’t wear his dentures due to sore gums.

Reilly said he is glad the Coast Guard is “looking at an industry that feeds on exhausted mariners. It creates an incentive to do things to maintain your ability to keep functioning.”

Anderson started the federal court case under an 1851 federal law that lets shipowners limit or eliminate their liability to accident victims and their survivors unless a judge rules the owner knew the vessel wasn’t seaworthy.

Joe Stacey, lawyer for the Porter estate, said before that settlement that he was “confident that we will discover further involvement of the owner. That will be sufficient to break the limitation.”

Ramirez was perturbed when she learned that Anderson’s company used the law to claim the boat owner owed nothing to the survivors because the wrecked Mary B II was worth $0.

“So Josh’s life meant nothing, Stephen’s life meant nothing and Jimmy’s life meant nothing? That’s not fair,” Ramirez said last spring.

Anderson used her own retirement money, not a bank loan, to buy the boat and crabbing permit for between $150,000 and $175,000, and her company now “is completely insolvent,” said Reilly, who declined to say how much she lost.

“It’s the last thing she is thinking about when she goes to bed and says prayers,” Reilly said. “She is thinking about her son and the crew.”

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