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Driver in fatal boat crash sentenced

ELLSWORTH, WIS. — A Minnesota man was sentenced last week in the case of a fatal 2013 St. Croix River boat crash that left his friend dead.

Patrick Puhalla, 49, of Bayport, was sentenced Aug. 12 in Pierce County Circuit Court to six months in jail, seven years on probation and community service. 

He 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.

Pierce County investigators said Puhalla was at the helm of his own boat when it slammed into a rock cliff on June 6, 2013, near Kinnickinnic State Park.

The crash left David J. Riley, 40, of New Richmond, Wis., dead. Riley served as harbormaster at Windmill Marina in Afton.

Puhalla said after the crash that he was relying on a new radar system he recently had installed on the boat to navigate the craft in darkness as he, Riley and a third man, Daniel Schulte, were returning up the St. Croix River from a riverside bar in Prescott, Wis.

The 2-1/2-hour sentencing hearing packed the Pierce County courtroom with about 60 people. 

The unusually large crowd required some attendees — most of whom were Riley’s family and supporters — to be seated in the jury box.

Presiding Judge James Duvall, a judge chambered in Pepin-Douglas county courts who occasionally serves on Pierce County cases, acknowledged the fact that the sentence did not match the punishment some in the courtroom had sought.

“Six months is not 25 years,” he said. “But to the person sitting there, it’s a long period of time.”

Puhalla, a business owner who works from his home office, will be allowed work release, Duvall decided. He will also be allowed to spend up to four hours a week with his children, according to terms of the sentence.

Several of Riley’s family members gave victim-impact statements at the hearing — all of them laced with emotion as they recalled deep connections with the St. Croix River.

Sue Riley described how David represented the family’s third generation to spend summers on the river — a place the Rileys have not returned since his death.

“It’s just too painful,” she said. “All the happy memories are gone.”

His father shared a similar sentiment, recalling more than 40 years boating on the river as a family.

“That’s all come to an end,” he said.

Puhalla will be prohibited from operating or riding in a boat for the duration of his probation. Duvall said that provision was issued out of respect to the Riley family.

“If they choose to go out” on the St. Croix River, Duvall said, “I don’t want them running into Pat Puhalla yay-hooing it up.

“He lost the privilege to be out on a boat on a Saturday afternoon.”

Puhalla expressed remorse during the hearing, where he apologized to Riley’s family members, which included his widow, Lisa Alvarez.

“I think about Dave every day and I will for the rest of my life,” he said before choking up. “I’m truly sorry.”

He admitted that going out drinking — in spite of having a Minnesota driver’s license permanently prohibiting him from alcohol consumption — was a decision he made that night.

“Stupidly, I still chose to drink,” he said.

Puhalla’s son, wife and brother spoke in support of him during the hearing. 

“You and your daughters have a special angel looking over you,” Puhalla’s son Mitchell Otterson said, looking at Alvarez.

Duvall, who used analogies and his own life experiences to shed light on the case in advance of his sentence, explained how the concept of justice can be a challenging question to wrestle with.

Some demand what Duvall described as “Old Testament” justice, while others seek leniency in hopes of redemption and rehabilitation.

The Puhalla case, Duvall said, is a better fit for the latter.

Jail, Duvall said, “does nothing for Patrick Puhalla — nothing positive. Even county jail increases his risk factor.”

Duvall openly disagreed with a statement by Alvarez’s daughter, who said in court that Puhalla is not capable of doing good.

While people are capable of doing terrible and harmful things, the judge said, they are also capable of change and redemption.

“I do believe in people,” he said.

Riley’s family members expressed frustration at the hearing that the case wasn’t resolved faster in the courtroom. Sister Megan Riley said the proceedings toward a plea bargain moved along like “a business deal.”

“That’s what it feels like,” she said.

Puhalla’s attorney, Timothy O’Brien, acknowledged the stress the two-year case caused on family members.

“Please understand that I have a duty,” he said.

Duvall noted that Puhalla opted against taking the case to trial, which is his right. The judge pointed out that jury trial offer no guarantees.

“He pled guilty,” Duvall said. “He didn’t have to.”

Other terms of the sentence include 300 hours of community service and a requirement that Puhalla attend an annual victim-impact panel on the anniversary of Riley’s death.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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