Man accused of setting Willamette Queen riverboat adrift

Richard Chesbrough got a call around 2 a.m. Monday from a police officer who asked him to meet at the Riverfront Park dock.

He arrived to find around eight Salem police cars and a fire department boat around the dock where he parks the Willamette Queen, a beloved riverboat that’s hosted hundreds of weddings, birthday parties and other events. 

The sternwheeler was gone.

Police told him that a man had untied the boat, setting it adrift down the river until it ran into the Center Street Bridge, about a quarter mile downstream.

There was little damage to the boat and bridge, according to Richard and his wife, Barbara Chesbrough, who own the Willamette Queen. But they are still calculating damage to areas of the dock when the boat was set loose, such as their boating ramp. “He just tore the hell out of that,” Richard said.

Prosecutors charged Jose D. Casillas, 44, on Monday in Marion County Circuit Court with unauthorized use of a vehicle and second-degree criminal mischief, according to the charging document. The vehicle charge is a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $125,000.

Casillas was not in custody at the Marion County Jail as of Tuesday, Aug. 15.

Salem police received a report around 12:30 a.m. on Monday that “the Willamette Queen was set adrift and floating down the river with the lights off,” department spokeswoman Angela Hedrick confirmed on Monday. “Witnesses were able to point to the suspect who had untied the boat, and he was located and arrested.”

Richard said the man untied the boat, unhooked its electrical cords and pushed it out into the water. It traveled about a quarter mile before getting stuck at the bridge.

“It’s also fortunate that the river is very low right now, so the current is slow,” he said.

Emergency responders tied a fire boat to the sternwheeler and hauled it back to the dock.

He said the suspect also tried and failed to steal a canoe and get dragon boats to float freely because they were fastened by cords.

Later that morning at the dock, Richard said a homeless man approached him and said he was the one who called police to report the boat floating down the river.

“I said, ‘Oh boy, dinner on us anytime you want to come out for a ride on the boat. I thank you,’” he recalled, laughing. “He was happy to do it, you know. Obviously he knew something was wrong. All the lights were out and it’s the middle of the night.”

 Court documents list Casillas as being homeless as recently as January.

“We have no idea what was on his mind when he wanted to do it,” Barbara said. “It kind of looked like he was trying to steal the canoe. But in order to get the canoe in the water, he had to push the big boat out of the way.”

Richard said the suspect got a canoe into the water but it was fastened by cords. He keeps it at the dock for life-saving efforts if someone is drowning or can’t swim. “We constantly have people trying to steal it,” Barbara said of the canoe. 

She said they are tightening security on Willamette Queen with additional cables that are difficult to break or cut.

“The good news is nobody got hurt, and it was just really a big inconvenience to everybody,” Richard said. The Chesbroughs are closing their business for around three days to complete repairs.

The couple met in 1996 and later bought the boat on a trip in Seattle. They brought it back to Albany, their home at the time. They moved to Salem in 1998 and have since run their boat business in front of Riverfront Park.

The Chesbroughs announced in 2021 that they planned to retire. They sought about $800,000 at the time for the boat and business, which remain for sale.

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to reflect that Richard Chesbrough said the suspect tried and failed to set dragon boats adrift, which were not owned by the Willamette Queen.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.