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Daring Coast Guard rescue brings missing boy home to mom

FORT MYERS BEACH — Luke Finch ate ice cream and sausage and all of their pizza crackers.

He spent the ride to shore standing beside the men in blue, and even got to steer the ship, just for a little bit. The blond boy then fell asleep in the arms of a detective.

Then, as the Coast Guard cutter Crocodile approached the dock, the 3-year-old boy clapped his hands.

"I'm coming, Mommy," he said. "I'm coming, Mommy."

As the sun set on the horizon, Christa Finch ran up the gangway and wrapped her arms around her son, their 2½ day ordeal finally over at 5:43 p.m. Tuesday.

"I love you," she told him. "I miss you."

The reunion was made possible by a daring Coast Guard rescue early Tuesday morning that authorities said thwarted a kidnapping plot by Luke's father.

Paul Martikainen, 35, is accused of stealing the boy from a supervised visit in Cocoa on Saturday, then trying to sail off with his son for parts as yet unknown. They were last seen leaving a St. Petersburg marina, just days after the state accused him of physically abusing the boy.

A massive search was launched, the tension increased by a fierce line of storms that marched across the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida, while authorities weren't even sure that the father knew how to operate a sailboat.

But then late Monday, a Coast Guard plane spotted the sailboat heading south. As day broke, the father apparently awoke to find himself outmanned and outmaneuvered, surrounded by Coast Guard vessels on water and up above.

About 120 miles southwest of Fort Myers, authorities said, Martikainen gave up without a fight. He was handcuffed and, hours later, learned that being captured was the best thing that could have happened to him that day.

That's because the sailboat sank while it was being towed back to shore, the Coast Guard said, with rough seas just a day or so away.

"They were lucky we got to them when we did," said Senior Chief Stephen Smith, commander of the Crocodile.

• • •

The sailboat, which Martikainen had painted gray, was found after investigators learned that he may not have much experience sailing. They figured he might use the onboard motor instead of the sail, so they set up a 22,000-square-mile search zone based on his estimated speed.

An HC-130 Coast Guard plane using infrared imaging technology first spotted the sailboat about 5 p.m. Monday. The sailboat, a 1977 32-foot Bristol, was heading south as fast as 7 knots — or 8.1 mph. The vessel slowed during the night.

Christa Finch was told that the Coast Guard might have located her son. But they wouldn't try to board the boat until daybreak.

"I was praying and praying and praying," she said.

A Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet took over for the HC-130. It guided in two cutters, the Crocodile and the Kodiak Island, to the sailboat's position.

The Crocodile arrived first around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Kodiak Island an hour later.

They stayed just a few miles behind the sailboat, hoping to stay hidden in the dark. The boat's mast was lit, as required by law. But its sail was up.

"Obviously he knew how to operate a sailboat to some extent," said Capt. Timothy Close.

The operation would commence at daybreak. The cutters waited for a Coast Guard helicopter to arrive. It was bringing an FBI hostage negotiator, just in case the father was armed and the situation deteriorated. A Cocoa police detective who knew Luke was also onboard.

Meanwhile, the sailboat drifted left and right, Senior Chief Smith said, suggesting the father had gone to bed. Just before sunrise, the cutters lowered Zodiac boats into the water. Each carried armed Coast Guardsmen.

"He planned this pretty well," Smith said. "We didn't know if he was armed."

The waters had calmed down. The weather was perfect. The sun rose, and the Coast Guard was ready. Smith radioed the sailboat at 7:20 a.m.

They saw Martikainen pop his head out from the cabin. They had taken him by surprise, Smith believed.

It wasn't until a Coast Guardsman on a Zodiac displayed a shotgun, the senior chief said, that the father gave up. He was not armed.

The Zodiac from the Kodiak Island came alongside the sailboat and arrested Martikainen on a federal kidnapping warrant.

• • •

Luke Finch was onboard and appeared unharmed, the Coast Guard said, though he was not in a life jacket.

The first thing his rescuers did was put Luke in one, and then transferred him to the Crocodile.

"When we got him on board he was very scared, very quiet," Smith said.

The helicopter lowered Detective Nellie Woodruff to the Crocodile. She had met Luke while supervising some of his court-approved visits with his father.

The boy quickly took to the crew, who fed him junk food. And he fell asleep in Woodruff's arms.

The handcuffed father was kept on the sailboat, where he was guarded by several Coast Guardsmen. The boat was inspected after the father's capture and appeared seaworthy, the Coast Guard said.

But sometime Tuesday as the Kodiak Island towed it to shore, officials said it sprang a leak. The cutter took everyone on board, and then the boat sank in the gulf.

The Coast Guard did not release any more details about that incident on Tuesday, including where it sank and at what time.

Nor did authorities say what kind of provisions the father had on board, or what his plan may have been. But his general course south convinced the Crocodile's skipper of Martikainen's destination.

"It looks like he was headed to the Yucatan Peninsula," Smith said.

• • •

The father had been estranged from his son since around his birth, the mother said, and didn't enter his life until about a year ago. According to Florida Today, court records show the boy was at the center of a bitter custody battle.

The Department of Children and Families said that on Nov. 25, days before the alleged kidnapping, it filed a report verifying allegations of physical abuse.

Why would the father try to steal his own son?

"Vengeance against me," was Christa Finch's answer at a news conference Tuesday evening. As she spoke, Luke clung to her leg and chewed on a stuffed toy owl that he calls "Uh-oh."

Cocoa police believe the father took his son during a court-ordered visit in a park that was supposed to be supervised by a friend of his. But the police believe that friend is not a co-conspirator in the kidnapping, and the mother doesn't blame him, either.

"I know that Paul is a con man," she said.

Around 8 p.m., Martikainen was brought onshore by FBI agents, who drove him to an undisclosed location. The father made no comment.

After reuniting with her son, Finch thanked the Coast Guard and law enforcement. But she was most thankful for those at St. Petersburg's Salt Creek Marina, who first tipped authorities that father and son were headed into the gulf.

"I'm in debt to that man for the rest of my life," she said as more than a dozen cameras filmed her.

But Luke was done with all the attention.

"I want to go home now," he said.

Daring Coast Guard rescue brings missing boy home to mom 12/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 7, 2009 12:39am]
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