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Tarpon Springs sailors jailed in Honduras released

Six men working for the Tarpon Springs shipwreck salvage company Aqua Quest International have been released after being detained in a jail in Honduras since May. The Americans are shown in this photograph talking with fellow inmates in the prison yard. [Courtesy of Michael McCabe]
Published Jun. 27, 2014

TARPON SPRINGS — The crew of a Tarpon Springs shipwreck salvage company that languished in a Honduran jail for weeks has been freed.

Hours after their release Thursday, the six men recovered their 65-foot boat from authorities and prepared for their 41/2-day voyage home.

"They're out of there," said Stephen Mayne, CEO of Aqua Quest International. "We knew from the beginning of this that this day would be here because the guys never committed any crime."

The crew is composed of Capt. Robert Mayne, 60, Stephen's brother. He and four crew members — James Kelly "Boo Boo" Garrett, 53; Devon Butler, 26; Nick Cook, 31; and Steve Matanich, 34 — are from Tarpon Springs. Their other brother, Michael Mayne, 57, of Cape Cod, Mass., is also aboard.

The crew's plight with Honduran authorities began May 5 when they arrived at the Central American country's northeastern coast. They were visiting Honduras to recover valuable mahogany logs from the bottom of a riverbed with the help of a local city and Indian tribe.

Instead, officers raided their boat and confiscated two pistols, two shotguns, and a semiautomatic rifle after crew members informed authorities they had weapons on board.

Honduran officials accused them of smuggling weapons into the country, but the crew maintained the guns were intended for protection against pirates.

The men were arrested and held in jail for weeks while the U.S. Embassy and U.S. lawmakers pushed for their freedom. They include U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., whose constituents include Butler's family.

Fitzpatrick recently traveled to Honduras to talk to officials and the imprisoned crew. He called the jail's conditions "deplorable" in a statement released Thursday.

During a recent meeting with Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, U.S. State Department officials reportedly mentioned the crew's incarceration.

Last week, a three-judge panel in Honduras unanimously voted to dismiss all charges against the men, Stephen Mayne said. But the order for their release needed to be signed by several judges.

On Thursday, the last signature was collected.

"They've been beaten down by this process, having their liberty taken away for all this time without committing a crime, but they are grateful that the Honduran legal system actually worked," Mayne said. "We're ready to move on with our lives and we have a lot of projects to move forward with," including three shipwrecks in the South China Sea.

Bilirakis said he was "thrilled" to hear the news.

"I think we were pushing very hard. First of all, they didn't do anything wrong," he said, adding Honduras' "bad publicity" during the ordeal also likely aided in hastening their release.

Sarah Montgomery, crew member Steve Matanich's fiancee, said she was able to talk to him on the phone during weekends, but is looking forward to getting him home.

"We're very, very excited," she said. "This finally actually happened."

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

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