Hawaii tropical fish collector spared jail after scuba scuffle

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 17, 2015 11:10 PM

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - A Hawaii diver who was catching tropical fish when he faced off underwater with a conservationist and ripped the breathing apparatus from her mouth pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a charge stemming from the scuba diving scuffle, a prosecutor said.

Jay Lovell was diving when he was caught on camera on May 8, 2014, off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island, pulling the regulator off Rene Umberger, director of the coral reef conservation group For the Fishes.

Umberger has said that at the time she and her group were videotaping Lovell and another diver as they collected fish for the aquarium trade, which is legal but nevertheless unpopular with conservationists.

She reinserted the regulator, which is essential for breathing under water, and slowly swam back to the surface.

Hawaii County deputy prosecuting attorney Jeff Burleson, who handled the case, said he has never encountered one in which a scuba diver is accused of using force against another diver.

Lovell pleaded guilty on Tuesday to second degree terroristic threatening at a court hearing on the Big Island. He was placed on probation for one year and given a six-month suspended jail sentence, which means he was allowed to go free, Burleson said in a phone interview.

If Lovell violates the terms of his probation, under the plea agreement he reached with prosecutors, he could be sent to jail for six months or a year, Burleson said.

Neither Umberger nor an attorney for Lovell could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Umberger said last year she felt Lovell could have killed her by ripping off her regulator, because she was at a depth of about 50 feet (15 meters) and might have suffered an embolism if she had panicked and surfaced too quickly.

Burleson said it was right for his office to charge Lovell with terroristic threatening, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail, because Umberger said she felt threatened.

"Attempted murder would be very difficult (to prove) because we would have to show that he attempted to kill her and we didn't feel we had that in this case," the prosecutor said.

"He didn't take actions beyond knocking out the regulator," he said, adding for instance Lovell did not hold onto the apparatus.

Lovell's attorney Evans Smith said last year his client felt threatened and acted in self defense when confronted by a menacing group of divers.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ken Wills)