Autopsy: Deputy killed in boating accident was intoxicated

Deputy Brandee Smith driving boat that hit channel marker in St. Johns River

PUTNAM COUNTY, Fla. – A Putnam County Sheriff's Office deputy killed in a boating accident on the St. Johns River in April was intoxicated at the time of the crash, according to an autopsy report.

Deputy Brandee Smith, 35, was off duty April 1 when the boat she was operating hit a channel marker in the river about 4:40 a.m. and she was thrown from the 14-foot boat. Her boyfriend was also on the boat, but was not hurt.

After crews from multiple agencies searched for more than 24 hours, using sonar in the murky waters, divers found Smith's body the next afternoon near a dock.

She drowned, according to the autopsy report, which showed her blood alcohol level was .162, twice the legal limit. Smith had blunt force injuries to her head and a broken neck.

READ: FWC report on fatal boat accident

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission released its final 19-page report on the crash, which indicated the boat belonged to Smith's fiance, Phillip John, and that he allowed Smith to operate the boat while she was impaired. The State Attorney's Office declined to pursue charges against John, following the wishes of Smith's family.

“First and foremost I failed my job as a navigator and that’s why we hit it. I failed my job. It’s 100% my fault. I was navigating, there was no light. It’s my fault," John told investigators.

FWC concluded under Florida statute both Smith and John were operating the boat, but Brandee was controlling the speed and direction of the boat. John was acting as the navigator.

The report said Smith was sitting on the left and John was on the right but they should have been switched to better operate the boat.

John told investigators he and Smith would go out on the boat three to four times a week.

He said that morning they had an extra five gallons of gas and Smith said, "Let's go for an adventure."

They traveled past Little Lake George to a trail Brandee wanted to explore, which was further than they had ever traveled before.

The report said John was looking down at his phone when he heard Smith yell, then they hit the channel marker.

After Smith was thrown overboard, John dove in looking for her, but he could only find her hat.

John told investigators he did not feel they were under the influence of alcohol, but admitted they were buzzed at the time of the crash.

FWC said the couple had a 12-pack of beer when they left home and there were 2-4 beers left in the boat.

Smith was a mother of three children, ages 12 to 17, and was buried with full law enforcement honors in a public service in Palatka.

"The loss of Brandee in an off-duty boating accident left a void in her family, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office and our community that can never be filled," Sheriff Jeff Hardy said. "Brandee was a loving mother and a dedicated public servant, and if anything good is to come from this tragedy, I hope it will serve as a reminder for boaters to observe safe boating practices at all times."

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