Airboat operator won't be charged in crash that killed University of Miami graduate

Prosecutor cites insufficient evidence to prove Steve Gagne had been reckless

Elizabeth "Ellie" Goldenberg died in an airboat accident the day after she graduated from the University of Miami.
Elizabeth "Ellie" Goldenberg died in an airboat accident the day after she graduated from the University of Miami. (Facebook)

MIAMI – An airboat operator won't be charged in a crash that killed a University of Miami graduate last year.

Elizabeth Goldenberg, tour guide Steve Gagne and Goldberg's mother, father and younger sister were ejected from an airboat during a tour of the Florida Everglades last May. Goldenberg was pinned facedown underneath the airboat's engine cage and drowned in the shallow marsh.

The crash took place the day after Goldenberg graduated from the University of Miami.

According to a closeout memo obtained Wednesday by Local 10 News, there was "insufficient evidence" to prove that Gagne "operated the vessel recklessly beyond a reasonable doubt."

Assistant state attorney Laura Cespedes wrote that Goldberg's family believed the airboat was traveling excessively fast at the time of the crash.

"Though the witnesses felt the subject was traveling at excessive speeds, there is no way to prove what the speed was or whether it was objectively recklessly," Cespedes wrote.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators interviewed Gagne, who said he was traveling about 20 mph, but slowed down to make a turn when the airboat flipped.

Cespedes said Gagne's apparent attempt to slow down would make it impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was operating the airboat in a reckless manner "by trying to be more careful."

Although there was "no question" that testing showed Gagne had ingested cannabis in the 24 hours prior to the crash, it would be difficult to prove that his normal faculties were impaired, Cespedes wrote.

"Though logic and reason would support he must have been impaired, there is a sufficient amount of testimonial evidence that contradicts this," Cespedes wrote.

Gagne appeared to have memory loss and bloodshot eyes after the crash, but Cespedes wrote that it "could be consistent with either impairment or the result of crying and shock."

Cespedes said she spoke to Goldeberg's family last month and explained the reason why the state wouldn't be able to file felony charges against Gagne. She said she offered to have Goldenberg's family members meet with her and the lead investigator, but they declined.

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