, Newburyport, MA

January 30, 2013

State board says Newburyport boat club is hindering probe of woman's death

Penalty expected to be announced soon

By Dave Rogers
Staff Writer

---- — BOSTON — The state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission yesterday accused the North End Boat Club of hindering its investigation into whether the Newburyport marina and social club played a part in a fatal head-on collision on New Year’s Eve involving one of its employees.

The accusation came to light as part of a public hearing into the club’s conduct before and after the accident on the Salisbury side of the Route 1 Gillis Bridge, held by a panel of three commissioners yesterday morning in its Causeway Street offices. In addition to two hindering or delaying investigation charges, the club was accused of violating at least four other ABCC statutes including failing to update the club’s roster of officers and directors and failure to file annual reports with the city’s Liquor Licensing Commission.

The crash claimed the life of an East Hampstead, N.H., woman, who was riding unbuckled in the front seat of a Lincoln Town Car operated by her boyfriend and North End Boat Club bartender, Mikhael Sarkis of Lawrence. Police believe Sarkis was drunk and had just left the marina when he got behind the wheel of his car with two passengers and began driving toward Salisbury.

Sarkis got onto the bridge in the wrong direction, heading north in the southbound lane, when he crashed into a Mercury Marquis driven by 20-year-old Salisbury resident Corey Burgess. Burgess was wearing a seat belt and escaped serious injury.

The crash killed 41-year-old Donna Bergeron and injured Sarkis’ other passenger, 62-year-old Clifford Pollard of Salisbury. No one in the Lincoln Town Car was wearing seat belts. Had they been buckled in, Bergeron’s life would have been saved, authorities believe.

Sarkis is being held on $100,000 cash bail and is expected in Newburyport District Court today for a pretrial hearing.

Located off Merrimac Street about a mile west of downtown Newburyport, the North End Boat Club has been a part of the waterfront scene for decades. If the boat club is determined to have liability for over-serving alcohol, police say it faces “significant exposure.”

Immediately following the crash, ABCC lead investigator Caroline Guarino-Wilichoski and Newburyport police began separate investigations into the conduct of the club.

At yesterday’s hearing, Guarino-Wilichoski said on Jan. 2 she and police Inspector Matthew Simons visited the club and asked manager Michael Rurak, whose name is on the club’s liquor license, for several pieces of documentation to be handed over by Jan. 4. Specifically, she asked for tax records of all employees, time slips, a list of everyone working on the night of the crash and other documents that could shed light on her investigation.

Meanwhile, police asked Rurak and North End Boat Club bartender Gail Nason, who was supposedly behind the bar on New Year’s Eve, to attend a meeting at the station with Guarino-Wilichoski and Simons on Jan. 7.

Based in part on interviews with Pollard following the crash, police are investigating the possibility that Sarkis may have also been serving alcohol that night. In interviews with Salisbury police, Pollard said he was waiting for Sarkis to finish his shift at the club so he could get a ride back to his Salisbury home.

At the Jan. 7 meeting, Rurak and the bartender refused to answer most of the questions posed to them on advice of legal counsel who accompanied them. Rurak also failed to bring any of the documents requested by Guarino-Wilichoski. Almost a month after the request for documentation, Rurak has failed to turn over the documents.

Earlier in the roughly 75-minute hearing, Rurak admitted the club violated the four other statutes and signed a document stipulating to that fact. But Rurak remained defiant on the hindering or delaying charge, saying he was told on Jan. 2 when Guarino-Wilichoski and Simons visited the club, that he could bring the paperwork to the Jan. 7 meeting. But ABCC commissioners seemed skeptical, with two of them pointing out that the meeting with police had not been scheduled until Jan. 3.

Regardless, the commissioners chided Rurak for not complying with the documentation request.

“He willfully disregarded it. He never did anything, he ignored it,” ABCC chairwoman Kim Gainsboro said to Rurak attorney Daniel Shanahan.

After hearing from both sides, the commission informed Rurak it would be informing him of its decision and any punitive action by mail. When asked by a reporter how long before a decision is reached, Gainsboro said she couldn’t comment.

“We try to do it as quickly as we can,” Gainsboro said.

Reached later yesterday, ABCC spokeswoman Chandra Allard said the commission isn’t under any obligation to render a decision in a certain amount of time.

After the meeting, Shanahan declined to comment on the accusation or how he felt the hearing went for his client, saying all of the details would be revealed in due time.

City Marshal Thomas Howard said Rurak’s lack of cooperation with the ABCC is also affecting its criminal investigation into the crash and the boat club’s possible involvement.

“Clearly documentation is part of that investigation,” Howard said.

The North End Boat Club was last cited by the city’s own Liquor Licensing Commission in 2001 for permitting an illegality on the licensed premises, a broad term that covers several different violations including over-serving patrons or serving liquor to a minor. As a result of the violation, the club’s liquor license was suspended for one day.