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Witnesses say captain not on boat when woman hurt

Benjamin Urbelis was arraigned at Boston Municipal Court on June 1.
Benjamin Urbelis was arraigned at Boston Municipal Court on June 1.Ted Fitzgerald/pool

A Charlestown lawyer and nightclub promoter who prosecutors say was drunk at the helm when his boat’s propeller sliced through the arm of a 19-year-old was swimming far from the scene when the injury occurred, according to two passengers who were on the boat.

Benjamin P. Urbelis, 33, has pleaded not guilty to charges that include reckless and drunken boating causing a serious injury in the May 30 incident that severed the right arm of 19-year-old Nicole Berthiaume. But Urbelis, who promotes his law practice’s expertise in drunken-driving cases online, was so far from the boat that he was initially unaware anything had gone wrong, the two passengers said in a written statement sent to the Globe by a lawyer who responded to attempts to contact the witnesses.

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“The Boat’s engine was off and the Boat was anchored for some time,” the witnesses wrote in the statement. “A few of us including Ben went into the water for a while and ended up drifting quite a ways from the Boat. While Ben and I were in the water far away, we noticed that the Boat was turned ‘ON’ and being driven.”

The statement did not say who was at the wheel when the injury occurred.

The witnesses’ version of events corresponds to details provided by others who came upon the chaotic scene in the moments after the injury. Mike Murphy, a captain with a towing and salvage company, SeaTow, said he fished Urbelis and two other people out of the Harbor southwest of Spectacle Island, nearly a quarter-mile from the lawyer’s boat about 10 minutes after the initial distress call.

Messages sent to other passengers on board that day have gone unreturned. The witnesses’ statement did not say how or why the boat’s engines were started and its anchor raised after Berthiaume jumped into the water to retrieve something that had blown overboard.

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Berthiaume’s arm got caught in the Chaparral 290 Signature’s propellers, which are below the boat’s swimming platform.

Rescuers responded to frantic 911 calls and mayday distress calls from the boat, applied a tourniquet and whisked Berthiaume to safety on a fire boat. An official last week said Berthiaume was in stable condition.

On board Urbelis’s 29-foot boat that day were four men in their 30s, including Urbelis, and nine women ages 19 to 22.

A police report also listed a teenage boy as a passenger, though a Boston police spokesman on Monday said that that was probably the result of a typographical error. A man with the same name is identified on Urbelis’s Instagram account, where he appears in photos both outside court and on the Naut Guilty, as Urbelis’s law intern. Public records indicate the man was born not in 1999 but in 1990.

Social media posts indicate that Urbelis owned the Naut Guilty for about two years and regularly hosted parties on board during the season.

Police said the Naut Guilty was well stocked with alcohol for the May 30 cruise. Urbelis allegedly failed a breathalyzer test, measuring .09 when he finally assented to one about four hours after the incident.

When Urbelis was arraigned a week ago, prosecutors described him as drunk and belligerent at the scene. Bail was set at $75,000.

Days later, his bail was reduced to $10,000, a move prosecutors agreed to “while the full extent of the defendant’s operation and control of the boat are under investigation,” according to Suffolk district attorney’s spokesman Jake Wark.

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Prosecutors acknowledged at Urbelis’s arraignment that he was in the water when authorities arrived. Urbelis’s lawyer declined to comment for this story.

Murphy said he got to the chaotic scene at 7:56 p.m., about 10 minutes after hearing the mayday calls over the marine radio.

He approached the Naut Guilty, where a passenger told him there were people still in the water. The passenger leaped onto the SeaTow boat and directed Murphy to a man about an eighth of a mile from the boat, and then to three more people cold and clinging to a seat cushion. Urbelis was among the three passengers farthest from the Naut Guilty, Murphy said.

Murphy, who arrived after the injury, said he had no way to know how Urbelis had gotten so far from the boat, or when he was last on board. But he said the bizarre mayday calls over the marine radio — the speaker never said where the emergency was taking place, or what the problem was — “would make sense if the captain was in the water. Someone without any experience was on the radio.”

In an e-mail, Wark declined to discuss the alternative sequence of events, or the possibility that another driver could be charged.

“The investigation into the incident — including control and operation of the vessel — is still open,” Wark wrote. “The defendant is the only individual charged at this point, though naturally we foreclose no possibility until all the facts are in.”

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Urbelis’s boat was tied in Charlestown on June 2 after the incident.
Urbelis’s boat was tied in Charlestown on June 2 after the incident. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.