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Missing Aripeka boater found; lands in Pasco jail

ARIPEKA — Most stories of missing boaters who are found and rescued end with happy, tearful reunions.

Joe Norfleet's ended with handcuffs.

"This is like kicking me while I'm down," said Norfleet, 40, during an interview with the Times from the Pasco jail Tuesday afternoon, where he was booked on a warrant for failing to appear in court on a battery charge.

Norfleet had just been rescued after spending the night stuck in his brother's boat in a place just south of Aripeka called Booty Creek. Norfleet suspects it's called that because the tall sawgrass gives boaters privacy. He and his girlfriend, Melissa Wells, 24, went out on the boat with Norfleet's dog, Oliver, at midday Monday.

Norfleet misjudged how low the tide would be and the 23-foot boat got stuck.

"We better wait this out," he told Wells. He hoped high tide would free the boat.

They had a gallon of water and leftover barbecue sandwiches from lunch. At 2 a.m. they split a can of bean soup. Norfleet and Wells screamed at airboats they heard in the distance. He stood on top of the boat with his flashlight. No one stopped. Norfleet's throat hurt. He thought about swimming for shore and trying to find help, but didn't want to leave Wells and Oliver.

Norfleet's brother called the Coast Guard at 9 p.m. when the two hadn't come back home. The Norfleet family is large and well known in town. The Norfleet Fish Camp is an Aripeka landmark built in the early 1940s.

"Someone will find us," Norfleet told Wells.

It was cold that night. He drifted in and out of sleep, jerking awake, on alert.

He slept through high tide.

About 10 a.m. Tuesday, he heard an airboat roar toward him. A man from Aripeka heard Norfleet was missing and went looking for him. The Coast Guard, Pasco County Sheriff's Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had also been searching.

Oliver got in the boat first. Then Wells and Norfleet, who was sunburned a deep mauve, his legs blistering, his arms scratched and bleeding. He was starving.

When they got to the dock, he saw a friend who is a bail bondsman.

"You have a warrant," Norfleet said the friend told him.

"What for?" Norfleet said.

Norfleet swears he didn't know about it and said it was a court mistake.

"I ain't done nothing wrong," he said.

Norfleet and Wells went to his house. All he wanted was to lay on the couch with Oliver and sleep. But he forced himself to get up to take a shower first.

He had stripped to his briefs when the warrants unit arrived.

He'd been on land less than an hour.

He had his girlfriend answer the door while he slipped out back. He needed to think.

"I don't feel like taking care of this right now," he said to himself. He thought about running, but he was so tired.

"I better get this over with," Norfleet thought and walked out front. The deputies were very nice, he said. They let him grab some jeans and a T-shirt.

"I understood they had a job to do," he said.

He was not angry. He said he felt numb. These past several months have been hard, he said. He got divorced. He lost his job in construction.

"I've had a lot of things happen to me," he said.

As he waited to be released, he focused on what he could: Getting out, getting a shower. He wanted a cheeseburger and fries and Reese's peanut butter cups. He wanted to lay down on the couch with Oliver and sleep and deal with the rest of the world later.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and Times staffer Danny Valentine contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Missing Aripeka boater found; lands in Pasco jail 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 8:03pm]
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