Six men working for a Tarpon Springs-based shipwreck salvage company have been stuck in a Central American jail for a month after authorities raided their boat and found guns.
The crew of the 65-foot vessel Aqua Quest has been detained ever since the ship was intercepted by local police as it arrived in Honduras on May 5.
Five of the crew members are from Tarpon Springs, and one is from Massachusetts.
The company Aqua Quest International typically salvages precious cargo from shipwrecks. The crew went to Honduras to recover valuable mahogany logs from the bottom of a river bed in cooperation with a local city and an Indian tribe.
However, after the ship pulled into port, authorities came aboard and arrested the crew.
The company says crew members had guns on board for protection against pirates, and had notified Honduran maritime authorities of this before entering that country's waters. But they are charged with illegal weapons possession.
"We were solicited to go down there and do business. It's not like we just showed up there unannounced," said Stephen Mayne, the company's chief operating officer and brother of the ship's captain, who is among those jailed. "We spent three years lining this up. We had government officials waiting at the dock for us. But some local officials saw a chance to pounce on us and take advantage of us."
The ship's captain is Tarpon Springs resident Robert Mayne Jr. Also on the boat were his brother Michael Mayne of Cape Cod, Mass., and four crew members from Tarpon: Devon Butler, Nick Cook, Kelly Garrett and Steve Matanich.
Officials in Honduras say the Americans brought an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle, two shotguns and two handguns into the country without permission. Aqua Quest insists that the guns were for personal protection on the open seas and not for resale on the black market.
The U.S. State Department says its embassy in Honduras is monitoring the case.
The office of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, has been in contact with the State Department, the Honduran government and the crew members' families — particularly a sister of diver Steve Matanich.
"She's in constant phone contact with them," said Bilirakis spokeswoman Elizabeth Hittos. "She says they've been treated well and they've been fed, and it seems like their spirits are up."
Aqua Quest International paints a different picture, saying its crew is being held in a dingy, dark room in a rural detention center infested with mosquitoes. Guards recently fired shots when a fight broke out among other inmates, worrying the crew, Stephen Mayne said.
"They are in harm's way, and it's all unnecessary," he said.
The company says it has been working through official channels to get its crew released. But since that hasn't worked, it is now making a public appeal.
Human rights groups say Honduras' judicial system is rife with corruption.
"The State Department has identified the judicial system in Honduras as having serious problems, especially in the prosecution and investigation divisions," said Stephen Schnably, a University of Miami law professor specializing in human rights in Latin America. "There's a lack of transparency with the way cases are handled."
The crew arrived in Honduras to remove mahogany logs from a river bed in cooperation with the town of Ahuas and Miskito Indians, the company said. The goal was to clear the waterways for boats in an area where there are few roads. The remnants of decades of logging in that region, the wood commands a high price, and the profits were to be shared with locals for infrastructure and social programs.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.