The gillnet fishing vessel Opal T is docked at Government Wharf in Port Hardy Monday after it was escorted in by RCMP and its skipper taken into custody early late Sunday night.

Dramatic sea rescue by RCMP follows skipper’s assault on crew

PORT HARDY-Suspect's hearing moved to Campbell River after Port Hardy judge recuses self due to relationship with family.

PORT HARDY — A fishing boat skipper from Courtenay allegedly armed with a shotgun and knives and threatening two crew members led to a rescue at sea involving members of the Port Hardy and Port McNeill RCMP detachments late Sunday night.

Shortly after 8:30 p.m., a request for assistance was received from a female crew member aboard the 30-foot gillnet fishing vessel Opal T as it travelled in the waters off Vancouver Island, near Port Hardy. The 26-year-old woman reported that the vessel’s skipper was high on drugs and threatening to kill her and the other crew member, a 21-year-old man.

Karl Darwin Thomas of Courtenay, 49, was charged with assault with a weapon (a knife), uttering threats, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm. He appeared in court in Port Hardy Tuesday for a bail hearing, but the hearing took an unusual turn when the judge recused himself from the case.

Thomas, who is more commonly known as Keith Thomas, instead had his hearing moved to Campbell River Court’s Wednesday morning docket after the presiding judge, Hon. Brian Klaver, revealed a relationship with the accused’s family.

“I can’t take this one, it wouldn’t be right,” Klaver said. “I’ve known his dad for years; he’s an old friend. I remember this man when he was just a boy.”

Klaver explained to the accused that it was a conflict of interest for him to rule on the bail proceedings, describing a ruling as “a no-win situation for both of us”.

The accused nodded but remained silent in the court. He was returned to custody after Judge Klaver agreed with a request from the accused’s counsel, Paul Grier, that the hearing be moved to Campbell River, which is closer to Mr. Thomas’ home.

Names of the victims have not been released by RCMP.

The pair had sought safety on the roof of the vessel, and the woman reported they had been physically assaulted and threatened by the skipper. There was a loaded shotgun on board, and multiple knives.

As RCMP officers were being mobilized to respond, additional information came in from the caller, indicating that shots had been fired, and the situation was escalating quickly.

Port Hardy RCMP officers took to the water in an attempt to locate the vessel. This was a challenging task given the diminishing light, and no exact location being available.

RCMP Island District Emergency Response Team (ERT) was activated to assist, based on the report of a weapon, and the threat to life.

Using cellular telephone ‘pings’ off towers in the North Island area, members of the RCMP’s Operational Communications Centre in Courtenay were able to identify a general location for the vessel. The remoteness of the area and the constant movement of the vessel made identifying a precise spot impossible.

The general area was Browning Passage, near Pine Island, northeast of Port Hardy.

This information was relayed to the Port Hardy RCMP officers on the water, helping them to locate the vessel shortly after 11 p.m. These officers shadowed the vessel, using the marine radio to repeatedly order the skipper to head for shore. Their attempts to defuse the situation were not successful.

Officers observed the two crew members on the back of the boat, and moved in to rescue them. The two jumped from their vessel onto the bow of the officers’ boat, and were quickly taken to safety.

After the crew were safe, contact was made with the skipper of the vessel via cell phone, and he was persuaded to dock at Port Hardy. The vessel was escorted in by an RCMP vessel based out of Port McNeill.

The RCMP Emergency Response Team was waiting at the dock, and took the skipper into custody without further incident. They also recovered a shotgun.

The Opal T remained at the dock in Port Hardy, where it was searched as a crime scene Monday by RCMP. The number of shots fired, and intent of the suspect, remains under investigation by the Port Hardy RCMP.

RCMP Cpl. Darren Lagan of the Island District RCMP said all three people on board the boat were from the Courtenay area.

“This incident highlights the challenges and risks of policing in Vancouver Island’s marine environment,” Lagan said. “Despite these risks, our officers put their training and experience to use, rescuing the two crew members, and safely arresting the suspect.”

With files from Aidan O’Toole and Erin Haluschak, Black Press