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Seven weeks in a Honduran prison: The untold story of the 'Aqua Quest'

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n May 1, as he prepared to leave for a long boat trip, Robert Mayne took a last look around the living room of his house in Tarpon Springs. It's where he keeps mementos from his recent shipwreck diving expeditions.

There's a fist-sized chunk of copper ore, cargo from a ship that sank in a 1924 hurricane off North Carolina. There's a lead ingot from a World War II munitions freighter that was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Virginia. Hardly as flashy as millions in gold and silver, but finds such as these have sustained Mayne over decades in the salvage business.

Mayne walked out of his house and drove a couple of minutes to the Aqua Quest, his 65-foot boat. A blunt-prowed trawler, it gets docked at the seldom-seen industrial west end of Tarpon's touristy Sponge Docks district.

Summer, when the seas are calmer, is the high season for outfits like Mayne's. Using historical records, magnetometers and luck, boats like the Aqua Quest hunt up and down the East Coast hoping to strike it rich.

"We don't like the term 'treasure hunters.' We call ourselves a marine archaeology recovery company," said Mayne, 60.

The Aqua Quest sets out for a humanitarian trip to Honduras

Illustration by Cameron Cottrill | Times

The Aqua Quest is a poor man's Odyssey Marine Exploration, operating on a much tighter budget than the headline-grabbing Tampa company. "We're just the little guy right now," said Mayne. He employs a handful of working-class guys and military veterans, all of whom were originally drawn to Tampa Bay because they wanted to work on the water. Somehow they ended up scuba diving 180 feet down to the ocean floor, operating heavy machinery while keeping an eye on sharks and trying not to get the bends on the way back up.

"What we do is not normal. You definitely have to be a certain kind of person to do this," said the youngest diver, 26-year-old Devon Butler. "It sounds cool when you're talking about it. But when you're actually doing it, you're thinking, 'This is kind of crazy, man.' "

"When the boys complain to me on the boat, I tell them, 'You got to take the bad with the bad,' " said grinning James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, 53, the ship's first mate. "It's hard, and it's frustrating, and it's dangerous. If it was easy, the Girl Scouts of America would be in the salvage business and we'd be selling cookies, right?"

But the mission on which Mayne was about to embark was uncharted water for his crew.

Instead of heading up the East Coast, they planned to head due south, to the Mosquito Coast of northeastern Honduras, a region that has become a hotbed for drug trafficking.

The job was supposed to be a business trip with a humanitarian angle. The Aqua Quest had a deal with a rural Honduran town, Ahuas, to recover mahogany and cedar logs from the bottom of the nearby Patuca River. The remnants of decades of logging, the old-growth wood commands a nice price. The job would take months. They'd train the locals to finish the work, and the company and the poverty-stricken town would split the profits.

In Tarpon Springs, six men loaded the boat with food, gear and enough fuel for the 900-mile voyage. For protection against piracy in international waters, they took two shotguns, two pistols and a semiautomatic rifle resembling an AK-47.

"It would be suicide for me to take a crew to that part of the world without being armed," said Mayne, the ship's captain, who previously had to brandish firearms at would-be attackers off the coast of Mexico.

The night of May 4, they arrived in the small port town of Puerto Lempira. They declared their weapons at a Honduran Navy inspection post.

It was late, so the port captain told them to get some sleep on the boat. He said he'd review their paperwork and fully process their customs entry in the morning.

The members of the Aqua Quest crew

The Aqua Quest crew from left to right: Robert Mayne, Devon Butler, "Boo Boo" Garrett, Michael Mayne, Nick Cook and Steve Matanich

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everal hours later, a police raid woke them in the middle of the night. A local prosecutor and two plainclothes officers working for him accused the crew of illegal weapons possession.

An argument ensued. Disoriented from sleep, the crew took a while to realize how much trouble they were in.

They spent the night of May 5 sleeping on benches at a police station. At an arraignment hearing, the port captain objected to the arrests and said any firearms onboard the Aqua Quest, if not allowed onto Honduran territory, would simply have been kept in his office. An Ahuas official translated for the crew and begged the judge to let them go.

The crew watched the prosecutor put his feet up on a table and pull a baseball cap over his eyes. The judge rested his feet on his desk, chewed on crackers and ordered the men detained for a six-day investigation.

The prosecutor's plainclothes officers made it clear a payoff could make the problem disappear.

"The first figure I heard was 350,000 lempira, or $17,500 for the prosecutor's office only," Mayne said. "They said you'll have to pay the judge separately."

It was night again when the men arrived at Puerto Lempira's dilapidated jail.

The Aqua Quest crew is apprehended and meets with the judge.

Illustration by Cameron Cottrill | Times

Oh my god, thought Steve Matanich, 34, the biggest guy on the crew. "I've never been in jail or prison or anything like that," he said. "The cells are run-down shacks. The fence around it is pieces of tin."

Inmates' heads popped out of the overcrowded cells, peering at the new arrivals.

"It was dark. There weren't any lights," said crew member Nick Cook, 31, an Army veteran from south Georgia. "Being from the States, you hear stories of how prison is in different countries. Going into a place like that, you can't show you're afraid."

They were separated into different cells, mixing with the jail's general population of scores of inmates.

Crew member Michael Mayne, the captain's 57-year-old brother from Cape Cod in Massachusetts, had the worst first night. He had to fend off an inmate who tried to yank out his diamond earring.

Morning brought their first good look at the jail, a handful of cell blocks around a dusty yard. There was no air-conditioning or running water.

For safety, the crew soon started paying to share a cramped, dingy cell. They rented it for $10 a night from a perpetually drunk murderer named Blanco. The crew called him "the Caveman." They slept on pads on the concrete floor or in hammocks.

"Every night was a decision of what part of your body you were going to allow the mosquitoes to feed on," Robert Mayne said. "If you kept yourself covered up in a sheet, your face would be swollen and your eyelids shut by morning from being bitten by mosquitoes. The trick we learned was to offer a sacrificial arm to those little suckers."

The cells were filthy, too.

"That place smelled like urine," Devon Butler pronounced. "Not kind of like urine. Not a little bit like urine. That place reeked of it all the time.

"You're lying on the floor at night and all you smell is urine. You have to sleep next to Blanco the Caveman, who is drunk and spitting near you. At night the mosquitoes and the roaches and these huge spiders come out. And you're thinking, 'I know this sucks, but it doesn't have to be this bad.' "

After six days, it was time for a court hearing, at which they believed they'd prevail. By this point, they had hired a Honduran lawyer to argue that they were being unlawfully detained. "This is going to be a happy day for you," their attorney assured them.

But the crew still hadn't paid any bribes. The attorney's optimism was misplaced. The same judge declared them guilty of smuggling weapons into the country.

For the Americans, it was a kick to the gut. This was not just some legal misunderstanding. Now they faced up to 16 years in prison.

Back in jail, Robert Mayne, the captain, began waking up at night in a cold sweat. He felt responsible for the crew being there. How was he going to get them out?

"You're in the hands of people that you know want to do harm to you, and they have the power to do it," he said.

The Aqua Quest crew adapts to life

Illustration by Cameron Cottrill | Times

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he crew dug in for the long haul.

They filed an appeal. Some wondered whether their employer could just quietly pay the necessary bribes to spring them.

"If you pay these people," their attorney warned, "they will forever be extorting money from you." Besides, it's a violation of U.S. law for a business to bribe a foreign official.

For weeks, the crew subsisted largely on beans, rice and tortillas. There was mystery meat, too. "It didn't taste like beef, and it wasn't pork," Nick Cook said. "We don't know."

Steve Matanich believes it was goat. "Kind of like pork but better."

They tried to keep their spirits up. Robert Mayne speed-walked around the jail yard for an hour every morning, irritating other inmates and pausing periodically to do pushups.

Matanich lifted weights made from concrete poured into 5-gallon buckets.

Cook played endless rounds of checkers with another inmate.

Garrett wrote a song about their ordeal.

We pulled into the Caratasca Inlet / Smelled like s--- and we stepped right in it …

Every day they recited new words they'd learned in Spanish and in the Miskito language. Many of the jail's inmates were Miskito Indians.

The heavily armed guards smoked crack and asked the Americans for money. Garrett and Butler dealt with the boredom by smoking pot they bought from the guards. Once the salty old first mate and the kid on the crew found out it was easier to get marijuana than it was to get food, they basically just stayed high.

"Horrible Mexican brown weed," Garrett recalled.

The crew grew as close as war buddies. Inevitably, though, they got on each other's nerves.

"You get six guys around each other long enough, it's kind of like dynamite, I guess you'd say," Cook said. "But you're stuck there. You're not going anywhere. You have your argument, you walk around, you cool down."

During a jail-yard fight over drugs, horrified crew members saw one inmate get worked over by a 2 by 4 that had a nail stuck in it.

They saw an inmate convicted of raping young women pay for underage prostitutes to be delivered to him.

They learned that roaches can bite people. They discovered the misery of dysentery. Matanich dropped 30 pounds.

They talked of busting out, but where would they go? In northeastern Honduras, six Americans would stick out like sore thumbs.

"You hold yourself together as best you can," Cook said. "The guards there really didn't have any involvement in the jail itself except for locking you in at night. At nighttime they'd drink and smoke their drugs. They'd hallucinate and see inmates trying to escape. In the middle of the night you'd hear gunshots."

When things got really bad, the crusty voice of "Boo Boo" Garrett would offer up a quote from the movie Platoon:

"All you got to do is make it out of here and it's all gravy. Every day, the rest of your life, gravy."

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arly on, the crew got a visit from a U.S. embassy official based in Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa. He said he'd monitor their case.

"Yeah, that's not what I wanted to hear," Butler recalled.

Frustrated with working through official channels, relatives in the United States revved up the American media machine. The fate of the Aqua Quest crew, covered in the Tampa Bay Times, made CNN, the New York Times and USA Today.

The controversy reached Capitol Hill, where congressmen, Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department pressured Honduras to free the men.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, kept telling Honduran authorities, who are eager to lure more American cruise traffic, that the Aqua Quest story was making them look terrible.

All that pressure made a difference. In late June, the crew's lawyer called with news that an appeals court had finally dismissed the charges. By that point, the crew was mostly afraid to believe it.

"We'd hear stories — we're going to be released this day or that day," Cook said. "We'd get our hopes up. Then our hopes would get crushed."

For the crew, 52 days in a jungle prison seemed to be forever. But Honduran friends told them their stay behind bars was over quickly. Legal appeals in Honduras can stretch for years.

Even after winning the appeal, the crew had to fight through one obstacle after another to get out of the country.

As the order for their release was signed by the appellate judges, Honduran courts were about to close for a two-week recess. The crew's release papers wouldn't reach Puerto Lempira in time. Two more weeks? Mayne thought. He had their attorney charter a plane for $1,500 to fly their paperwork in.

From the moment they walked out of jail, a pair of Honduran Navy special forces operatives were assigned to protect them.

"They were not your typical soldiers. You could tell by the way they carried themselves," Mayne said. "They had bulletproof vests, and they followed everyone's eye movements. Any time something came down the street, they'd stand in front of us."

In Puerto Lempira, the court's computer crashed. Then the electricity went down. At the port, a customs officer tried to shake them down for money.

Finally, it was time to retrieve their guns from the prosecutor.

"We didn't want to leave unarmed," Robert Mayne said. "We didn't know what was going to happen."

It was dark as they stood outside the steel gate of the prosecutor's compound.

Mayne saw a pickup truck switch off its headlights and roll to a stop nearby. Inside were the plainclothes officers who had tried to extort the crew the night they were arrested.

"They looked at me, they looked at the soldiers, and they drove away," Mayne said.

The Aqua Quest crew toss their guns overboard.

Illustration by Cameron Cottrill | Times

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nce they were safely in U.S. waters, crew members had one final piece of business.

They felt that the weapons that had caused them so many problems were bad luck. They made the guns "walk the plank" and buried them at sea.

Five crew members arrived in Tarpon Springs just before the Fourth of July. (Michael Mayne, the only crew member not from Tarpon, flew straight home to Massachusetts.) The boat pulled into the Sponge Docks, where a crowd waited with balloons, flags, iced cans of Budweiser and cries of "God bless America!"

The crew disembarked for emotional reunions with relatives and friends. Cook and Matanich hugged their 5-year-old sons. Matanich, who had suffered badly on the prison diet, ate at McDonald's later that day. "It tasted so good, but I got so sick."

They scattered to several states, visiting family.

After a three-week break, they got back on the Aqua Quest and sailed to a shipwreck 40 miles southeast of North Carolina's Cape Fear to salvage tons of copper ore. They needed the payday.

The crew members are all a little different now.

"I've never been more content in my life," Devon Butler said. "People talk to me about all their drama, and I'm thinking, 'How can you let that bother you? You live in this beautiful place. You're free.' "

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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Seven weeks in a Honduran prison: The untold story of the 'Aqua Quest' 09/03/14 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2014 12:08am]

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