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Mystery shrouds death and disappearance of Tarpon Springs fishing captain

TARPON SPRINGS — It began as a fishing trip like any other.

Gregory Lasnier stocked the commercial fishing boat he captained with ice, bait and groceries. He waited for a deckhand who never showed. A friend hugged him goodbye.

On Feb. 16, he set off alone, leaving his dock behind Holiday Seafood off Island Drive and steering the Daniel I into to the Gulf of Mexico as he had so many times before.

It was a fishing trip like any other, until it wasn't.

The Coast Guard found Lasnier dead in the boat's pilot house Feb. 26, on the other side of the Florida peninsula, hundreds of miles from any of his normal fishing spots.

What happened on board the Daniel I during those 10 days remains a mystery.

There is no body. There is no autopsy. There is no boat.

Coast Guard responders said they couldn't recover any of it. The boat was taking on water, and conditions were unsafe. They believe the Daniel I sunk off the coast of Sebastian Inlet south of Melbourne, although even that part of the story is unclear.

But one thing is certain:

The sea became his graveyard, the boat his casket.

• • •

Reports from the Coast Guard and Lasnier's friends and family members recount his journey:

He was headed to a popular spot for red grouper, most likely an out-of-commission radio tower, in shallow water off Naples. The Coast Guard received a report Feb. 21 from someone who noticed the Daniel I possibly adrift near the Dry Tortugas. The Coast Guard contacted the owner, who said the vessel monitoring system showed a pattern consistent with fishing. The owners tried reaching him on the satellite phone to no avail.

Henry Alonso, owner of Holiday Seafood, reached out to Ron Rathey, a fellow captain out at the same time, to see if he could reach Lasnier on his radio. The coordinates Rathey got were about 150 miles south of him, far outside his radio's range, he said.

"It didn't sound right," Rathey, 64, said.

By Feb. 26, when someone else reported seeing the boat about 35 nautical miles west of Freeport, Bahamas, it was clear something was wrong.

"I said, 'Oh, my God. Get out there right now,'" said Daniel Triandopoulos, the son of the owner and the boat's namesake.

The Coast Guard dispatched boats and helicopters to the Daniel I, said spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Kelley. A rescue swimmer made it onto the boat, which was taking on water, and found Lasnier dead inside the cabin.

Crew members tried unsuccessfully to remove his body and tow the boat, but it was taking on too much water. They stayed on scene, losing radar contact during the night. The next day, crews couldn't find the Daniel I during an air and surface search, Kelley said. They assumed the boat, valued at about $70,000, had sunk.

About two weeks later, Triandopoulos got a call that the boat's emergency position indicating radio beacon — or EPIRB, which sends a signal when the boat is sinking — blipped off the coast of North Carolina. Kelley said it must have broken off the boat and floated north.

Triandopoulos, 42, said he doesn't buy it. The EPIRB was screwed firmly to the top of the boat. Kelley said no one reported seeing a boat up that way, making even the site of Lasnier's grave a mystery.

His family and friends do see a silver lining, though.

"Fortunately, in his own way," his sister, Stevie Younkin, said, "this is how my brother would have wanted to go: with a good story."

• • •

Gregory Joseph Lasnier was born April 8, 1963, the middle child of three to a steel tool maker and medical secretary. The fishing bug came early, even growing up in inland Burlington, Conn. His mother, Ellen Lasnier, said he used to sneak to a reservoir behind their home at night to catch trout.

He graduated high school, despite symptoms of some kind of learning disability, his mother said, although it was never formally diagnosed. His tick was that he always laughed when he got in trouble.

Perhaps it stuck around in his fishing career, where he was known as the captain who took risks, who would stay out in weather that drove everyone else back to land or eat a whole pepper on a dare.

"Gregory was all in or all out," Ellen Lasnier, 82, said.

He discovered the fishing scene in Florida with his parents, who, as Ellen Lasnier put it, did what any Connecticut retirees do and moved south. They lived in Port Richey, then Hudson, then Largo before moving to California to join Younkin. He went with them, worked some odd jobs, but Lasnier was never a "land guy," his sister said.

He got his captain's license in California and headed to San Diego to try to get a gig as a captain. It didn't work out, so he went back to Florida. He landed the job on the Daniel I about eight years ago, Triandopoulos said.

"He was so happy," his mother said. "He thought Tarpon Springs was the Earth, the sun and the moon."

He made a life there, living on the boat, befriending other fishing fanatics and adopting a chihuahua named Monster who, by all accounts, earned her name. He also gained a reputation as a skilled fisherman who brought in an average of 1,700 pounds a trip, Alonso said.

"The book — The Old Man and the Sea — he was like that," said Larry Odom, a friend of Lasnier's who lives across the street from the fish market. "A king fisher, a master mariner."

Beyond his skill, Lasnier set himself apart with his generosity. He gave up his "numbers" — or points of latitude and longitude where the fishing is good — to those who needed help, said a fellow captain, David Harman.

He always answered first if a boater was doing a radio check, then would take to the airwaves at day's end to brag about his catch and see if there was anyone around to tie up to for dinner and fish stories under the stars.

• • •

The life of a fishing captain didn't always lead to the healthiest habits for Lasnier. He smoked cigarettes and popped painkillers, friends said, and could often be found with a six-pack of cheap beer. But other than a hernia last year, Lasnier was in good shape, and going out alone wasn't uncommon for him, despite objections from his friends.

Which is all the more reason the family would like to know how he died.

As they started to dig for answers, Younkin and Triandopoulos said they hit walls with the Coast Guard. They were told to file Freedom of Information Act requests, a process that can take months.

It took a reporter asking questions to get information beyond the basics.

"I just feel they got as far away from this thing as possible," Younkin said.

Kelley said the Coast Guard did everything it could considering the circumstances.

"Our sincerest condolences go out to the family and friends of Mr. Lasnier on their tragic loss," he said. "We take the task of returning the remains of a loved one home as a solemn and serious responsibility."

The Triandopoulos' other boat, the Phoenix, sits next to where the Daniel I was docked, now for sale. The death shook the family so much they're getting out of the business, even ceasing construction of the Daniel II.

"I can't put another captain on a boat and sleep at night," Triandopoulos said.

But there are the sweet signs of Lasnier, too, the ones that keep his memory alive.

Lasnier gave Rathey a buoy the last time the friends saw each other. It was the same buoy he used weeks later — after the news from the Coast Guard and the casketless celebration of life — to pop his anchor from the gulf floor when it got caught in something too heavy for his normal stock of buoys.

It would have become a nasty situation, Rathey said, had it not been for that last gift from his friend.

"I couldn't help but think, 'Thank you, Greg,'" he said, sitting in the fish house, his voice husky. "'I couldn't have done it without you.'"

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

Mystery shrouds death and disappearance of Tarpon Springs fishing captain 04/10/17 [Last modified: Monday, April 10, 2017 5:30am]
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