Trial ordered for family members of victims in fatal watercraft crash

Vehicular manslaughter charges were dismissed against family members charged in the July 2004 deaths of 6-year-old Jordan Cockrell and 14-year-old Ashley Wagoner, who died in the waters of Lake Tahoe following a personal watercraft accident.

Brothers Dennis and Gary Cockrell will instead stand trial on two felony counts of child cruelty and a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Court testimony by South Lake Tahoe marine officer Steve O'Brien revealed the family attempted to rent personal watercraft at a North Lake Tahoe business but were refused when a clerk discovered underage teenagers likely would operate the machines.

That same day - July 19, 2004 - the clan went to South Lake Tahoe, where they successfully rented four personal watercraft. One was ridden by Ashley, with Jordan sitting in front of her.

Another was driven by 15-year-old Derrick Cockrell, Dennis' son, who sat idle on his Jet Ski when he was struck by Jordan and Ashley.

All three went into the water. Only Derrick survived. He suffered a bruised right knee. Ashley drowned. but the coroner believed she might have been unconscious or had the wind knocked out of her. Jordan died from bleeding in his brain.

Jordan was the son of Gary Cockrell, who also had guardianship of his niece, Ashley, whose parents were in Barstow at the time.

El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said the two brothers were intent on getting personal watercraft for underage family members and their intentions led to the death of Jordan and Ashley.

"Your honor, this all happened because two gentlemen agreed to lie," Uthe said.

Much of the focus during the hearing Thursday centered on rental forms signed by the Cockrells. California law states an operator of a personal watercraft must be at least 16 years old. If a passenger is on board, the driver must be at least 18.

Steve O'Brien, a South Lake Tahoe marine police officer, testified marina staff didn't suspect Derrick and Ashley were not of legal age.

Attorneys for the Cockrells said the negligence landed on marina staff rather than their clients.

"Is there anything on this form to identify or distinguish who is going to be a driver and who is going to be a passenger?" asked Don Heape, Dennis Cockrell's attorney.

"No," replied O'Brien.

Thomas Kolpacoff, Gary Cockrell's attorney, also touched on the strategy of staff carelessness in allowing the minors to operate personal watercraft.

The Cockrells will appear in court at 10 a.m. Dec. 16 for an arraignment.


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