published Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency charges boat operator in drowning death

The father of a 37-year-old man who drowned last year says he's grateful authorities pursued the case for almost a year in order to file charges against a suspect.

"[The investigators] gave me more comfort than anybody did," said 80-year-old Billie Hess, father of Jimmy Hess, who died last year after falling out of a sailboat on Chickamauga Lake.

"I think about [him] regularly. Sometimes it's worse than others," Billie father said. "I just hope something comes of this. ... I don't think [his drowning] was accidental."

Last week, Shawn Jeremy Russell, 32, was charged by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency with boating under the influence and failure to render aid. He was taken into custody by Hamilton County sheriff's deputies at his Chattanooga home, then later posted bond. TWRA does not investigate homicides, but does investigate boating accidents.

On June 14, 2011, Russell was operating a sailboat on Chickamauga Lake near the dam and Gold Point Marina. Three other people were onboard, including 37-year-old Jimmy Hess, who, along with Russell, fell overboard. Hess drowned.

Investigators said they believe the two men were fighting at the time.

Russell declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday.

After one of the passengers called 911, Russell was instructed to stay at the location because rescue personnel were on their way to look for Hess, records show. Russell, who showed signs of impairment at the time, told the dispatcher he was going to Lakeshore Marina but went to Gold Point instead, the affidavit states.

Investigators took a blood sample from Russell which showed a reading of 0.19 percent alcohol in his system -- more than twice the legal limit, which is 0.08 in Tennessee.

Prosecutors at Hamilton County District Attorney's Office noted there was no trauma on the body of Hess, who was the father of two children. The medical examiner ruled his death as an accident, according to the report. No physical evidence indicating foul play was located on the sailboat.

Russell has his next court date set for July 3 before Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge David Bales.

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