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O’Neal Hysterical, Said He Ducked Under Tow Line, Witness Testifies

December 17, 1986 GMT

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) _ Griffin O’Neal was hysterical after the boat accident that killed his friend Gian-Carlo Coppola and was screaming ″Oh, God, please help me,″ the first person to arrive at the scene testified Tuesday.

The witness’ testimony also called into question defense claim that O’Neal, son of actor Ryan O’Neal, did not see that two boats he cut between were connected by a tow line, which threw the 23-year-old son of director Francis Ford Coppola onto the deck.

The prosecution completed its case Tuesday against the 21-year-old O’Neal, who was indicted on five misdemeanor counts, including boat manslaughter and reckless and negligent operation of a boat in the May 26 accident.

The manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and five years in jail.

The witness, Dwight Atkinson, the first person on the crowded South River near Annapolis to reach the 14-foot runabout after it had struck the tow rope, described O’Neal as ″hysterical and very concerned about his friend.″

″I told him (Coppola) not to do it. I told him not to do it. I ducked down,″ Atkinson quoted O’Neal as saying.

Atkinson did not elaborate on what he thought O’Neal meant.

He said he was about 200 feet away and first became aware of the accident when he heard O’Neal scream: ″Oh God, please help me. He’s dead.″

″It was just a frantic scream for help,″ he said.

Dr. Anne Dixon, deputy chief medical examiner for the state, testified Tuesday that Coppola died of head injuries including a fractured skull and brain damage. He also had abrasions on his left arm and left side of his face where he was hit by the rope.

The two young men and Coppola’s fiance, Jacqueline De La Fontaine, were in Washington, D. C., filming a movie, ″Gardens of Stone,″ directed by Coppola’s father. They came to Annapolis to go boating on a day off.

Miss De La Fontaine was not aboard when the accident took place.

Defense attorney T. Joseph Touhey, has said O’Neal was an inexperienced boat skipper who did not see the rope and made an error in judgment when he decided to cut between the two slow-moving power boats.

Kenneth Wilkins, who was towing a disabled boat to port, testified Tuesday that he saw O’Neal’s runabout seconds before the accident and that it appeared the two young men were not aware they were about to hit the rope.

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Both were smiling, and O’Neal did not try to slow down or change course to avoid the rope, he said.

During a break in the trial, Ryan O’Neal said the trial was a tragic event but ″fair, completely fair.″

Asked if he thought charges should have been filed O’Neal replied, ″Perhaps, but I’d like to see him (Griffin) get off with something mild.″

″I feel terrible about that day. (The Coppolas) are friends of ours. They go back many years.″

″I know Francis went to Cuba rather than hear about (the trial.) He couldn’t even stay in the U.S. He went to Cuba, to Cuba,″ O’Neal said.