Illustration | Laura Mattei
When the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kingfisher pulled up to the commercial fishing vessel Billy B 46 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico on the night of Aug. 20, 2017, the crew found Captain Noah Gibson and deckhand A.J. Love floating in the dark water, clinging to a life raft and each bleeding from multiple stab wounds.
What had started as a routine fishing trip out of Bon Secour ended in a nightmare for the men after Christopher Shane Dreiling stabbed them in a delusional attack and forced them bleeding into the Gulf waters. Last week, Dreiling was convicted in federal court on two counts of assault with intent to commit murder within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Gibson and Love survived, but according to one family member, may never return to sea.
As part of the close-knit fishing community, Love and Dreiling had become friends over the years through previous fishing expeditions together. In the week before the trip last year, Love invited Dreiling to his home outside Houston for dinner, where Dreiling asked for help finding work.
Dreiling had come to Texas with the promise of a job on board a boat owned by a man named Charlie Graham. But when he arrived, he found the boat in dry dock and learned a trip had never been planned.
Dreiling contacted Love, who invited him over and also arranged for Dreiling to join him aboard the Billy B in Alabama the following week. But as he drank throughout the dinner, Dreiling was still focused on the job that had fallen through and at one point allegedly told Love “somebody ought to kill” Graham. Between the night of the dinner and the day the Billy B left Bon Secour with the three men aboard, Dreiling went on a four-day drinking binge.
Love introduced Dreiling to Gibson and on Aug. 16, 2017, the three men left port in search of grouper on a trip expected to take less than a week and in the best case scenario, provide almost a month’s worth of income.
According to the testimony of both Love and Gibson, the first four days were routine. By their own accounts, Dreiling was quiet and unassuming, but otherwise did all the work expected of him and slept soundly when he could.
But Dreiling was drying out. With no alcohol or drugs on board and temperatures hovering in the 90s during the day, Dreiling later told forensic psychologist Dr. Judith Campbell, “he got an uneasy feeling, like he wasn’t part of the crew.”
According to psychologists who examined Dreiling in prison earlier this year, he didn’t have an easy life. An expert witness for his defense team last week testified Dreiling was a victim of child abuse beginning in the womb, when his mother was kicked in the abdomen by his father while she was pregnant. His mother also suffered from a tumor, which could have impaired his brain development.
His father was violent and irresponsible according to statements from Dreiling and his family, hitting Dreiling with a truck at the age of 5 and by age 7, providing him with alcohol. The family lived in poverty and moved more than 20 times throughout his childhood.
The jury last week was not allowed to hear evidence or testimony related to a voluntary manslaughter charge Dreiling pleaded guilty to at the age of 17, but did hear about a “psychotic episode” in 2012 resulting in an involuntary hospital commitment.
As part of a defense strategy seeking a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, forensic psychologist Dr. Robert Shaffer reported Dreiling suffered from brain damage and “had a long history of neurological and emotional symptoms.”
In September of 2012, testimony indicated, Dreiling had been using methamphetamines in Contra Costa County, California. Living with a friend at the time, he became paranoid his roommate was saying negative things about him that would lead their neighbors to kill him. He fled the house on foot and was subsequently arrested twice in the next two days for trespassing and bizarre behavior, including telling strangers he was being watched and followed.
Upon the second arrest during the episode, he was hospitalized and treated with antipsychotic medication. But it wasn’t long before he was released again and back to abusing drugs and alcohol.
On Aug. 20, 2017, just after sunset, the United States Coast Guard Sector Mobile received a radio call from Dreiling. Dreiling claimed the two other men aboard had conspired to kill him, so in an attempt to prevent his own murder, he stabbed Gibson and Love repeatedly and ordered both men off the boat.
Under interrogation by the Coast Guard Investigative Service the next day, Dreiling said he had become increasingly concerned his comment to Love about killing Charlie Graham had gotten back to the Texas boat owner. Dreiling grew increasingly suspicious about private conversations between the two men and a handgun onboard the Billy B. Eventually, Dreiling began to believe Graham had contracted Love and Gibson to murder him at sea and dispose of his body in the murky depths.
So on the fourth night, believing Gibson had the gun in his pocket, Dreiling attacked. He stabbed Gibson in the back and ear, and Gibson jumped overboard to escape. Clinging to a chain attached to one of Billy B’s outriggers, Gibson witnessed the attack on Love next.
“That’s when Chris started chasing A.J. around the boat,” Gibson told investigators.
Love pleaded with Dreiling to stop the attack, reminding them they were friends and begging for his life. Before he ordered Love to jump overboard, Dreiling stabbed him at least 15 times. Six of the wounds were life threatening, including punctures to the arm, neck, lung and colon.
But with the perceived threat to his life gone, Dreiling found himself in another predicament. He did not know how to operate the Billy B’s propulsion, navigation or communication systems.
From the dark water below, bleeding and wary of sharks, Gibson and Love begged Dreiling to call the Coast Guard and throw them a life raft and the vessel’s EPIRB, a device which transmits geolocation data to the Coast Guard and nearby vessels upon contact with water.
Within a few minutes Dreiling did all three, but not before forcing Gibson to take his clothes off to prove he wasn’t carrying the gun.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard cutter Kingfisher was underway from Panama City, Florida to New Orleans for routine maintenance. Dreiling’s distress signal and the EPIRB indicated the Billy B was approximately 7.5 nautical miles away.
Nearly 45 minutes later, crew aboard the Kingfisher rescued Gibson and Love from the water. They were clinging to rope attached to the life raft. About an hour after that, a helicopter arrived to medivac Gibson and Love to Pensacola Baptist Hospital and before dawn, a second Coast Guard vessel with an investigations team arrived to detain Dreiling and tow the Billy B to port.
Gibson was treated and released within hours, but Love remained in critical condition for two weeks. According to a family member who wished not to disclose their name, doctors said the saltwater that filled Love’s lung may have saved his life, but he was within minutes of bleeding out.
Upon completion of the investigation, Dreiling was indicted in federal court last September.
To prove a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity, a jury must find the defendant “is unable, because of severe mental disability or defect to the extent that he could not appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his act.”
Based upon the testimony of Dr. Shaffer, defense attorney Latisha Colvin showed CT scans of Dreiling’s brain taken after the 2012 episode in California indicating his frontal lobe was missing tissue vital for reasoning.
“Christopher Shane Dreiling is someone who came into this world under horrible circumstances,” she told the jury during closing arguments. “His brain was focused on rewiring itself from all the trauma I can’t even begin to imagine.”
The impairment, coupled with “a complete and utter lack of motive, complete and utter lack of sense and a complete break from reality shows you how we got here,” Colvin argued.
Noting there were not one but two guns on the boat, Colvin said “if it’s true he really wanted them to die, he had the means to make that happen.”
Instead, “when the threat on that boat was gone, the aggression was gone, but the paranoia remained.”
Federal prosecutor Michael Anderson disagreed. Testimony from the prosecution’s own expert witness, Dr. Campbell, suggested Dreiling’s attack on board the Billy B as well as the episode in California were not the result of brain damage, but rather textbook paranoid personality disorder and antisocial disorder coupled with chronic alcohol and drug abuse.
Further, Dreiling admitted to investigators that he prayed for himself and the victims in the moments before he began his attack, thereby undermining the insanity defense.
“These were mortal wounds with the intent to kill,” Anderson told the jury. “Forty-six miles out in the Gulf, that alone should have been a death sentence.”
Anderson said one juror allegedly gasped when Love’s injuries were put on exhibit.
“[Dreiling] was suffering from something, but not to the extent he did not know what he was doing.”
Further, Anderson said Dreiling’s initial communications with the Coast Guard were more an attempt to provide a justification of his own actions than to seek help for his victims.
“His defense is he was trying to help A.J. Love and Noah Gibson, but it is obvious he is also trying to help himself,” he said. “This was not a ‘complete break from reality,’ in a two-hour-and-15-minute interview with [investigators], Christopher Dreiling was very clear he knew exactly what he was doing.”
The jury deliberated about five hours over two days to return the two guilty verdicts. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Previous convictions, including Dreiling’s 1993 manslaughter plea, can also be considered upon sentencing, which is scheduled March 11 of next year.
Notably, it was U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Beaverstock’s first criminal trial. Nominated to the bench by President Donald Trump in September 2017, the U.S. Senate confirmed Beaverstock’s appointment in August.
A native of Mobile, Beaverstock was on active duty as an Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army prior to a career in law. He earned a bachelor’s degree from The Citadel and juris doctorate from the University of Alabama School of Law. He remains in the U.S. Army Reserve since leaving active duty.