BOYNE CITY — Video from a fatal airplane crash in Boyne City is causing a local Charlevoix County News staffer some turbulence of his own.
Michigan State Police arrested Damien Leist, 38, of Boyne City, at his home Jan. 29 for “photographing dead body in a grave,” a felony in Michigan with a maximum two years in prison and possible $5,000 fine. Leist is an advertising sales representative from the Charlevoix County News, owned by Gaylord-based Choice Publications.
He is accused of misleading law enforcement to capture video images of a Jan. 6 airplane crash near Addis Road in Boyne City, where two men died that morning.
Video posted to Leist’s personal YouTube.com feed showed him standing next to wreckage.
“As you can see, the crash site is pretty dismal,” Leist says, after identifying himself as reporting for Choice Publications.
The facts are disputed from there. Authorities allege Leist and a second man asked two Charlevoix County deputies for permission to go to the crash scene and were denied because remains were still at the location. But when the two deputies left for an hour to refuel vehicles, the two men allegedly lied to two new reserve deputies and told them the county undersheriff had given them permission.
Leist said he woke up “late to the game” the morning of the plane crash and called fellow reporter Jeff Bossory to the crash site.
Several media outlets had reporters at the crash site earlier, when deputies escorted media members to a location where photographs and video were taken at distance.
“I get up there at about 11 o’clock and the party is over,” said Leist, who posted a $5,000 surety bond for his release. He said he received permission to take photos of the scene.
Leist said deputies let them walk up a plowed trail to the downed airplane.
“There was not yellow tape. There was no crash investigation going on anymore,” he said. “... If the cops would have told us that nobody is going up there, we would have gone home.”
Leist is set to be arraigned Feb. 11, and faces a second count for being a habitual felon for being guilty of manufacturing/distributing marijuana in 2011. The habitual offender count could make the maximum two-year charge multiplied by an additional year in prison.
Bossory, the camera man, has not been charged.
The ban on photographing a body in a grave is an obscure 1997 law enacted after a film crew captured images from wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 1975 wreck where bodies remained entombed.
In response to the outcry from the families, northern Michigan lawmakers sponsored the law to prevent a person from “knowingly photographing or publicly displaying a photograph of all or a portion of a decedent located in a human grave” without approval from the next of kin.
The law expresses special concern for Great Lakes waters, but also covers more general disasters and accidental grave sites such as a mine where “all or a portion of a decedent is located.”
Charlevoix County Prosecutor Allen Telgenof said he brought the charge because “there were still remains at the scene.”
Telgenof acknowledged the law was new to him, but charges were merited given the circumstances.