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Tarpon Springs ship's crew remains jailed in Honduras

The Americans with fellow inmates in the prison yard. From left: James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, Steve Matanich, Devon Butler and Nick Cook. [Michael McCabe]

The Americans with fellow inmates in the prison yard. From left: James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, Steve Matanich, Devon Butler and Nick Cook. [Michael McCabe]

There's no air conditioning in the hot, dilapidated rural jail in Honduras where a handful of Tarpon Springs scuba divers have been detained for nearly six weeks. At night, mosquitoes eat them alive in their dingy cell. They subsist on meager rations of beans and rice. Gunshots ring out when the guards break up prisoner fights.

The crew of the Aqua Quest marine salvage boat remain jailed on charges of smuggling weapons into this Central American country. But they insist they had five guns only for protection against piracy in international waters.

Back home, the men's families are becoming increasingly worried. They believe this is all a shakedown for money in an impoverished nation with a corrupt judicial system.

The controversy has reached Capitol Hill, where members of Congress are stepping up political pressure to free the crew. In a hearing this week, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., questioned President Barack Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Honduras about the case. And Honduras' president met with U.S. State Department officials in Washington on Friday.

"There's no running water in the jail. There's a well and a 55-gallon drum of water they keep in their cell," said Sarah Montgomery of Tarpon Springs, fiancee of one of the six jailed men. "They're renting a cell from another inmate for $20 a day instead of being put into the general population. It's an inmate who kind of runs the prison from the inside."

Aqua Quest International typically salvages precious cargo from shipwrecks. This time, its job was to recover valuable mahogany logs from a river bed in cooperation with the rural Honduran town of Ahuas. The company and the town were to split the profits.

The crew arrived at northeastern Honduras' Mosquito Coast on May 5. They say they notified Honduran maritime authorities that they had weapons on board. But after the 65-foot vessel pulled into port, authorities raided the boat and arrested the crew.

"They have been kidnapped by the system. They have done absolutely nothing wrong," said Rudy Stockhausen, the government secretary of Ahuas. "Would you risk a million-dollar investment to smuggle five firearms? This is just bananas."

Stockhausen is translating for the crew in court. "The judge just ignores everything we say."

The ship's captain is Tarpon Springs resident Robert Mayne, 60. Four crew members live in Tarpon: first mate James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, 53, and diver/deck hands Devon Butler, 26, Nick Cook, 31, and Steve Matanich, 34. Also on the crew is Mayne's brother Michael Mayne, 57, of Cape Cod, Mass.

The company says it began setting up this job after attending a Honduran business conference in 2011. The impoverished people of Ahuas were to benefit from the river dredging that was to be done to reach the mahogany logs. That would reduce flooding, increase fish counts and speed up navigation for boats in an area where there are few roads.

"We were solicited to go down there and do business," said Stephen Mayne, Aqua Quest's chief operating officer and brother of two of the jailed men.

"It's like this: We were invited to this party three years ago. They kept telling us what a great party it's going to be. We show up and knock on the door. They punch us in the face and lock us in the closet."

The crew had two shotguns, two pistols and a semiautomatic rifle that resembles an AK-47.

In court filings, prosecutors say the men should have had a Honduran permit for the guns. The crew members, who face 10 years in prison, say they declared the guns at a Honduran Navy inspection post. The crew's Honduran lawyer, Armida Lopez de Arguello, argues that the men are being unlawfully detained.

No one on the crew has a significant criminal record except for Robert Mayne, who served prison time 30 years ago for a Cape Cod marijuana bust.

The U.S. State Department says, "The case is working its way through the Honduran justice system." It has been nearly a month since an official with the U.S. Embassy in Honduras visited the crew in jail. State Department officials wouldn't comment on a meeting Friday with Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Congressmen calling for the crew's release include U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., whose constituents include Devon Butler's family.

Rubio got assurances from the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Honduras, James D. Nealon, that the case would be a priority.

"These men should not be in jail," Rubio said.

The crew's families are raising money for legal expenses at gofundme.com/aquaquestcrew. They're pinning their hopes on a Honduran appeals court hearing that may happen next week.

"They never give an exact date," said Montgomery, Matanich's fiancee. She keeps in touch via the crew's cellphone, kept in the warden's office.

She had to tell their 5-year-old son, Dylan, that "bad men locked Daddy up, but he didn't do anything wrong."

"He started to cry," she said. "He wants to know when Daddy's coming home."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

Tarpon Springs ship's crew remains jailed in Honduras 06/13/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2014 10:47pm]
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