By Karin Stanton
KONA Hawaii (Reuters) - A Hawaii man who collects tropical fish for aquariums pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a criminal charge stemming from an unusual underwater scuffle in which he is accused of ripping the breathing apparatus from the mouth of another scuba diver.
The defendant, Jay Lovell, also asked that the case against him be heard by a jury trial, which a state circuit court judge scheduled to begin next Thursday in the city of Kona on Hawaii's Big Island.
His plea of not guilty was entered during an arraignment before Judge Ronald Ibarra that lasted just a few minutes.
Rene Umberger, 53, director of a coral reef conservation group called For the Fishes, has accused Lovell of attacking her at a depth of 50 feet while she and others in her group were videotaping Lovell and another diver collecting fish.
She said Lovell swam rapidly toward her and ripped the scuba regulator out of her mouth without provocation. She managed to reinsert the mouthpiece within 10 to 20 seconds and was unharmed, but a less experienced diver could have panicked, leading to a drowning or a fatally rapid ascent to the surface.
An investigation of the rare scuba altercation led prosecutors to charge Lovell with a single count of making a terroristic threat, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Defense lawyer Evans Smith said his client had felt threatened and acted in self defense when confronted by a menacing group of divers.
"Mr. Lovell was underwater and suddenly surrounded by six strangers with heavy equipment who blocked his route to the surface," Smith said, adding that Lovell immediately contacted authorities after the incident. "He's not the criminal here."
While conservationists have been pressing for greater protections for coral fish, collecting aquarium specimens is generally legal in Hawaii.
(Reporting by Karin Stanton in Kona; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Nick Macfie)