A tragedy at sea causes a divide between teens’ families
TEQUESTA, Fla. (AP) — Before Tequesta teens Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen disappeared at sea nearly two years ago, the 14-year-old boys had built a solid friendship along the waters near their homes.
Pals since they were 10, the kids often fished and boated together and used social media to stay in touch.
Their parents also got along well. Perry once took a trip to the Bahamas with Austin and his family, and there was talk of a joint-family fishing foray to the islands.
But newly released records show the families’ good relations ended the moment Austin’s mom called Perry’s mom late on the afternoon of July 24, 2015, to report the kids were missing in the ocean and had not been heard from for about five hours.
There was “shock and dismay over learning that Austin’s family had betrayed a trust with regards to the limitations clearly placed on Perry’s authority to go offshore,” Perry’s stepdad recalled in a Feb. 22 meeting with investigators. Perry’s family also was in disbelief that Austin’s family had not yet called 911, he said.
The hard feelings have only intensified in the past week. Perry’s mom’s lawyer used the words “eye-opening” to describe a law enforcement report recommending that criminal child neglect charges be brought against Austin’s mother, Carly Black, for permitting the boat trip.
Yet state prosecutors declined to file any counts on May 22, saying there was “insufficient proof” of a crime, according to the just-published report.
The bitter rift between the teen victims’ loved ones has never before been documented so publicly, though there had been some indications of trouble.
Less than three months after the disappearance, Perry’s parents asked Austin’s parents not to connect the boys’ photos “in any written or electronic format.” For public vigils marking the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, the families were separated. And a lawsuit was filed by Perry’s mom to have a judge referee what turned out to be a fruitless search for data on Austin’s recovered, saltwater-destroyed iPhone.
Still, the South Florida community that rallied behind the families and shed tears with them largely has viewed the boys’ legacy as being inextricably linked. Their almost certain deaths — no bodies were ever found — became the impetus for a new state law on boater safety that takes effect July 1.
Today, the teens’ biological and stepparents communicate only in legal proceedings, and Perry’s estate is considering a wrongful death lawsuit against Austin’s mother, over negligence allegations.
Late last year, Black filed a petition in federal court seeking to limit her liability under maritime laws to $500 — the cost of the damaged vessel she owns, an 18-foot, single-engine, 1978 SeaCraft.
The mother contended that the loss of life “occurred through no fault or negligence” by her and that the boat was properly equipped and in good condition, so all claims against her should be capped.
A judge is expected to make a ruling on the request, which is opposed by Perry’s biological parents, Pamela Cohen and Phil Cohen.
A pleading in the case filed last month by Perry’s mother offered a possible preview of a state lawsuit against Black, once the federal court matter is resolved.
Cohen accused Black of being clearly responsible for the boys’ deaths, in part because the boat was not kept in a seaworthy condition and had no radio equipment on board. According to authorities, severe weather reached the area about 1:30 p.m., when the boat was offshore.
“Due to the failure to properly equip the vessel, Austin and Perry had no way to mayday as the storm was approaching,” wrote attorney Guy Rubin, representing Pamela Cohen.
The same pleading also accused Austin’s mom of failing to monitor the boys’ use of her boat, “such that they were able to leave the safety of easily navigable waters.”
Records show Austin was the more experienced of the two boys on the water. He completed a boater education course in March 2012, nearly 2½ years before Perry.
Perry’s parents have said they permitted him to go fishing with Austin only on inland waters that day or any day, never off the coast.
Authorities have investigated social media allegations, including Snapchat messages with other friends, that the boys were instead trying that day to journey to the Bahamas.
An attorney for Perry’s father has filed a court pleading with a map depicting a route from the Jupiter Inlet to the Bahamas. The lawyer wrote one of Austin’s unnamed friends had this map, which was obtained by investigators.
But authorities say there is no clear evidence of an attempted trip. A U.S. Coast Guard report made public last December notes that an examination of the boys’ iPads, supplied by the parents within days of their disappearance, yielded no information about plans for a Bahamian excursion.
The teens last were seen buying about $100 worth of gas at a Jupiter marina.
Austin’s phone disconnected from the internet about 1:16 p.m., just before the storm passed over the area, according to phone records.
Their boat was initially found about 67 nautical miles off the coast of Daytona Beach two days after they disappeared, but it drifted away because it wasn’t secured.
In early August 2015, a Sarasota-based flight school found life vests and a seat cushion near Savannah, Ga. A canine named “Quincy” alerted to the boys’ scents on the vests, according to the findings of a private search firm hired by the Cohen family.
Blu Stephanos, father of Austin, has told investigators that the Cohen family has “consistently refused” to share the firm’s report, and said he was met with resistance from the start of the search off Georgia.
This month, officials released two reports that further fueled already high interest in the case.
First, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission detailed its findings of a forensic investigation of the vessel, found in March 2016 by a Norwegian supply vessel about 170 miles east of Bermuda.
The conclusion of the boat motor manufacturer, Yamaha, and an independent marine consultant: The 2005 motor was working and stormy weather caused the teens’ boat to capsize after it left the Jupiter Inlet.
Then, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a report indicating that on Dec. 1 the agency had opened a criminal investigation concerning allegations of child neglect against Austin’s mother.
Special Agent William V. Saladrigas wrote that he conducted interviews with Black and the other parents. The investigator also reviewed phone records and the examination of the boat, leading to his conclusion that Black had violated a state law against child neglect.
The key finding in Saladrigas’ report is that Black permitted the boys to “go offshore into the Atlantic Ocean, an inherently dangerous environment, in a minimally equipped . boat . without adult or parental supervision.”
While the boat was “fundamentally sound,” it had no electronic or communications equipment that “would have made a successful rescue infinitely more probable,” the agent wrote.
He suggested Black should have known better because she and her husband own a marine-supply business.
Black’s “egregious lapse in judgment and failure to exercise due care had the effect of culminating in the disappearance of both boys who are now believed to have perished in the mishap,” Saladrigas wrote.
The agent also noted that no one from Austin’s family contacted the authorities or Perry’s parents for hours after “they knew or should have known that the boys were in imminent danger.”
In response, Black’s attorney has said he would not comment on the law enforcement report because of the pending litigation.
“There will be an appropriate occasion for Carly to address the issues contained in the report but . this is not the appropriate time,” George Harris wrote in a statement to the media.
Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos took issue with the recommendation for charges, insisting that “boating on the open seas is not an ‘inherently dangerous activity.’”
It would have to fit that definition to warrant criminal charges, despite the possibility of poor judgment by Black, the report stated.
But Perry’s mom says the report clearly shows wrongdoing.
“The new revelations in the FDLE report paint a stark picture, one characterized by a calamity of errors in judgment and missteps that could have potentially averted this tragic loss of life,” Pamela Cohen said in a statement.
Though no one expects Austin and Perry are ever coming home, the Florida Crime Information Center continues to list the boatmates as missing persons.
An extensive, weekslong search by the U.S. Coast Guard, law enforcement agencies, private groups and others, from Jupiter to North Carolina couldn’t find the teens.
A year after they were lost, Austin’s mom released a statement that read: “If I could hug my son today I’d never let him go.”
And Perry’s mother said, “I have tried to understand why he was taken from me, his family and his friends.”
Both families created separate foundations to honor the memory of the boys.
Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/