ST. PETERSBURG — The 3-year-old boy who was abducted by his father and taken to sea on a sailboat has reunited with his mother.
U.S. Coast Guard crews located the sailboat late Monday night about 100 miles off Sanibel and kept the boat under surveillance overnight. At sunrise Tuesday, two Coast Guard cutters and a helicopter converged on the sailboat and safely recovered 3-year-old Luke Finch, a Cocoa police spokeswoman said.
Christa Finch was reunited with her son, Luke, at about 5:45 p.m. in Fort Myers Beach. Finch fell to her knees as she embraced her son and told him she loved and missed him.
"I was just thankful," Finch told reporters afterward. "I just thank God I have my little boy."
Finch said she wasn't sure whether Luke realized what was going on.
"He's very smart for his age. I don't know if he understands to a full extent what happened. I guess we'll see."
Throughout the press conference, the boy clung to his mother's leg and "Uh-Oh," a stuffed owl that is the toddler's favorite toy.
At one point, he whispered to his mother, "It's okay, mommy."
At a news conference before noon Tuesday, Finch broke down in tears when recalling the moment she heard that her son was safe. She said she was relieved to hear "his little voice" on the phone after he was rescued.
"I just want to say thank you to everyone," Finch said. "This is absolutely the best day of my life."
Luke seems to be in good health, police said. Investigators were taking Luke's mother to Fort Myers Beach.
"This is a glorious day," said Cocoa police spokeswoman Barbara Matthews. "It could have gone so much worse."
The boy's father, Paul Martikainen, was still aboard the sailboat Tuesday as it was being towed to shore by another Coast Guard cutter, which was expected to make landfall later in the evening.
Finch said she believed Martikainen was going to take the child to another country out of vengeance against her.
Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close described the rescue at another news conference Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Investigators first relied on information that Martikainen had little sailing experience, so they expected him to use the onboard motor. After checking in with various marinas and discovering he hadn't refueled, the Coast Guard set up a 22,000-square-mile search area based on his estimated speed.
Around 5 p.m. Monday, an HC-130 Coast Guard aircraft crew spotted the boat on radar. Because the boat had been painted battleship gray, it was easy to identify, Close said.
Two Coast Guard cutters, which were about 110 and 200 miles away at the time, began following the sailboat about 1 or 2 a.m. so the aircraft could back off. Then the cutters closed in on the boat, which was heading south as fast as 7 knots — or 8.1 miles per hour — and slowed during the night.
"Obviously he knew how to operate a sailboat to some extent," Close said.
By 7:15 a.m., the cutters got close enough to send small boats with armed officers to the sailboat. Martikainen surrendered peacefully, Close said, and he was handcuffed. Luke was taken aboard a cutter, rather than a helicopter, because authorities didn't want to scare him any further.
Luke is headed to shore in the cutter, along with a Cocoa police detective whom he is familiar with and other law enforcement officers, Close said.
Martikainen will be taken into custody by the FBI on a federal arrest warrant for kidnapping, police said.
Family-related abductions are common, said FBI agent Dave Couvertier. Of the 100,000 to 150,000 abductions every year in the United States, about half are committed by family members. In many of the family-related abductions, the child is recovered.
This one posed special challenges, being on international waters.
"Everybody's elated by the safe return of Luke," Couvertier said. "In my 27 years in law enforcement, this is a perfect example of teamwork between federal and state and city."
Stay with tampabay.com for updates as they become available.