The owner of Hudson River Rafting Company knew a guide had a drinking problem, but he continued to let him take clients on whitewater trips, one of which resulted in the death of a client who fell out of a raft and drowned last year, according to sworn statements.
The guide—Rory Fay of North Creek—later admitted he was intoxicated at the time of the accident. He pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, driving while intoxicated, and aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle.
In a statement to state police, Fay said Pat Cunningham, who owns the company, and one of his assistants, Mark Lebrecque, knew he drank heavily. At the time, Fay was living in a guides’ house owned by Cunningham.
“On more than one occasions [sic], I was told to clean up my beer cans at the guide house by both Mark and Pat. The[y] seen me drink after work and they knew I drank a lot,” Fay said. “They knew I had started to drink quite heavily. They would make comments about my drinking too.”
Fay’s statement is a piece of evidence in a lawsuit filed against Cunningham and Hudson River Rafting by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is seeking to shut down the business.
In court papers, Assistant Attorney General G. Nicholas Garin said Cunningham hired Fay shortly after he left an alcohol-rehabilitation center last year.
“Not long after guiding his first excursion down the Hudson River in May, 2012, Mr. Fay began drinking heavily again. Patrick Cunningham was aware of this and, early on, simply advised him to clean up his beer cans,” Garin said in a court document that summarizes the state’s case.
Even though Fay lacked a driver’s license, Cunningham told him he had to drive clients to the launch site or he couldn’t work, according to Garin’s statement.
Steve Ladd, another guide who worked for Cunningham, said Fay “was always drinking” and often smelled of alcohol, according to a deposition Ladd gave state police after the fatality. On one occasion, he told Cunningham that Fay might be drunk. “Pat said he’d take care of it, but he didn’t go anywhere and Rory still went as a guide for his trip down the upper Hudson River in Indian Lake,” Ladd said.
“There have been other times I’ve told Pat about Rory’s drinking alcohol on the job,” he said.
On September 27, Fay was guiding a raft on the Indian River when he and one of his customers fell into the water. Fay managed to get to shore, but the client, Tamara Blake, 53, of Columbus, Ohio, drowned. Her body was found in the Hudson River about five miles away. Blake’s boyfriend, the only other person aboard, stayed in the raft and steered it to shore.
After pleading guilty in Hamilton County Court, Fay was sentenced to a year in jail and five years of probation.
Cunningham has said he didn’t know Fay was drunk on the day of the accident.
As part of the lawsuit, Wayne Rader, a former driver for Cunningham, testified in an affidavit that it was not unusual for Cunningham’s guides to show up “in various states of intoxication or marijuana highs.”
“The most dangerous thing that I observed was a guide named Billy who would jump off the bus while it was moving and crossing the Rockwell Falls bridge in Luzerne,” Rader said. “He would jump into a deep gorge below. No jumping off the bridge was allowed because it was so dangerous. He would joke about this, saying he did not jump off the bridge, he jumped off the bus.”
In late March, state Supreme Court Justice Richard Giardino ruled that Hudson River Rafting violated the law by sending customers on whitewater trips without licensed guides and by transporting them in buses operated by drivers without the requisite license. The judge has yet to rule on another cause of action accusing the company of engaging in fraudulent and misleading advertising. A hearing on that allegation is scheduled for next week.
The attorney general wants Giardino to fine the rafting business and close it for good. The judge has ordered the company to cease operations until the lawsuit is resolved.
Cunningham’s attorney, Jason Britt of Glens Falls, said he wouldn’t comment while the suit was pending. Court documents filed by Cunningham in the case could not be obtained on Friday.
Photo by Phil Brown: Pat Cunningham, right, enters Hamilton County Courthouse in January with one of his attorneys.