A Hood County jury on Thursday found former Granbury City Councilman Gary Couch not guilty of boating while intoxicated (BWI) after hours of testimony that included how Donald Zacharias Zimmerman ended up in the water on the night of Sept. 21, 2019, leading to his drowning and Couch’s arrest.
Couch, 58, pleaded not guilty to the Class B misdemeanor, but admitted to the elements of the charge. He and his attorney Richard Hattox posed a necessity defense, arguing that Couch piloted his pleasure boat to shore out of concern for the safety of his other two passengers. He did so after it seemed clear that Zimmerman, who had jumped into the water of his own accord, could not be saved.
Of the two male passengers who remained on the boat, one, Mitchell Lee Davis, was extremely distraught and “unpredictable,” according to Couch, who took the stand during the trial. The other man, Domantas Karalius of New York City, 27, had never been on a boat before, was not a strong swimmer and was trying to calm Davis.
Karalius, too, testified during the trial, which got underway at 9 a.m. in the courtroom of County Court-at-Law Judge Vincent Messina.
Hattox and County Attorney Matt Mills agreed to proceed with the trial despite one of the six jurors being absent due to a death in her family. The remaining five jurors consisted of one man and four women.
Couch testified that he and the other men set out in his boat at about 5 p.m. that day. He said that he showed them Granbury landmarks, stopping the boat at times so that the friends could talk and listen to music. He said that over a period of hours they consumed a punch that contained vodka.
Karalius testified that, after it grew dark, he and Couch were looking at Google maps on Karalius’ phone in preparation for heading back toward Harbor Lakes, where Couch lives, when an argument broke out between Zimmerman and Davis.
Both Karalius and Couch testified that they did not know what caused the argument or what it was about but that it seemed “personal.” They said that Zimmerman jumped into the water with the intention to swim to shore but quickly began struggling.
Couch testified that he jumped into the water but was unable to save Zimmerman, a 45-year-old Dallas resident who worked in real estate. He said he could tell that the boat was drifting away from him and that the wind was whipping up. Darkness also complicated his rescue attempts.
Wind noise could be heard in the recording of Couch’s 911 call, which was played at the beginning of the trial. The call was made around 11 p.m., and Couch told the dispatcher that Zimmerman had been in the water for about 20 minutes.
Multiple agencies that included the Granbury Police Department, the Hood County Sheriff’s Office, game wardens and the Brazos River Authority responded to the scene. Couch pointed his boat to the Harbor Lakes neighborhood, and the first officers to arrive used flashlights to guide him to one of the docks there.
Granbury police officers Richard Branum and Justin Pugh testified that when they attempted to question Couch, he appeared to have bloodshot eyes and slowed speech. Pugh said that he smelled alcohol. Both officers said that Couch did not follow their instructions to stay off his phone and that he instructed the other two men to remain silent.
Pugh acknowledged under questioning by Hattox that Couch was within his rights to remain silent and to advise his friends to do the same.
Couch told the jury that he felt “a shift” in the attitude of the officers after they noticed blood in the boat and bloody scratches on his own body. Couch said that he had been unaware of the injuries but indicated that the ladder on his boat is difficult and has to be jerked and that he had struggled with a tangled rope earlier when the men had attempted to waterski.
“I recognized I was in shock,” Couch stated on the stand. “I wasn’t connecting to emotions. I needed time to process what I had just been through.”
According to a timeline presented at trial, Messina signed a warrant to have Couch’s blood drawn at Lake Granbury Medical Center at 1:04 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 22 after Couch refused to undergo sobriety tests at the scene. Couch’s blood was drawn at 1:33 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours after the 911 call. He was booked into jail on a charge of boating while intoxicated and bonded out several hours later.
Davis was arrested on a charge of public intoxication and was also booked into jail. Karalius was deemed not to be intoxicated and was not taken into custody.
James Milam, a lab technician for the Texas Department of Public Safety who performed the test on Couch’s blood sample, testified that Couch’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) was .091. He estimated that Couch’s BAC at the time of the incident had likely been about .1285.
The legal limit for Blood Alcohol Concentration is .08.
The Granbury Police Department took control of the BWI case, but ultimately referred it to the Texas Rangers since a former city councilman was involved. Couch served two terms on the council, ending his service in November 2018.
The BRA and game wardens handled the drowning incident. Zimmerman’s body was found by search teams at about 1 p.m. the following Monday.
Mills argued to the jury that, although Zimmerman’s drowning was a tragedy, that incident had nothing to do with the fact that Couch had been driving the boat while intoxicated and intended to continue driving the boat back to the ramp where his vehicle was parked.
Class B misdemeanors are punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail.
The case went to the jury at 2:40 p.m., and a verdict was reached by 4:05 p.m.
Hattox expressed gratitude that Couch had finally had the opportunity to tell his side of the story from the witness stand.
"Gary Couch is my friend and has been a true dedicated public servant for all of us," Hattox said. "We are grateful that he has finally had his day in court. We owed him that. This ordeal has been a terrible burden to bear. He has finally been able to have an opportunity to be heard in the best place to place your faith: in court, instead of social media and the press."
Hattox continued, "We are grateful to the jury and to the police officers who performed their duties with grace and faith in our system as well. We grieve with Gary in the loss of our friend (Zimmerman), but with the knowledge that Gary did all he could to preserve his life."
Mills expressed disappointment in the conclusion reached by the jury.
"In my 14 years of work in criminal law, I've never disagreed more strenuously with a verdict," he stated. "I'm sorry if I let the Granbury PD down."