Thursday, Dec 18, 2014

Joyous return as crew back from Honduras jail


Published:   |   Updated: July 3, 2014 at 06:36 AM

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It took more than 50 days and intervention by U.S. officials for the six-man of crew of Aqua Quest to finally be freed from a jail in a remote port in Honduras.

The captain of the Tarpon Springs salvage ship, Robert Mayne, says he feels lucky.

“For us, it was a brutal, difficult, long, slow procedure. Our friends in Honduras told us it was lighting quick. They generally never move that quick,” said Mayne, who was jailed on May 5 along with his crew on charges of smuggling weapons in the port town of Puerto Lempira.

Others imprisoned on questionable charges in backwater towns like this may be left in their dirty, bug-infested cells for years before their appeal is heard, Mayne said.

But Wednesday morning, the 65-foot Aqua Quest sailed back into the familiar waters of the Anclote River to meet an enthusiastic party of friends and family waiting dockside on Dodecanese Boulevard.

Mayne ate seafood nearby at Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill with his brother, Stephen Mayne, who tirelessly publicized the crew’s plight and pressed for action.

Brother Michael Mayne, who was also on the trip, was returning home to Massachusetts on Wednesday. The other crew members, Steve Matanich, James Kelly Garrett, Devon Butler and Nick Cook, all live in Tarpon Springs, home to the Aqua Quest International salvage and research company.

“I’m just trying to breathe a sigh of relief,” Robert Mayne said.

Traveling open waters in search of sunken ships and other adventures carries a certain level of risk.

Mayne said he has entered numerous foreign port towns where government officials dutifully inspect his ship and let him pass.

When Honduran navy officials first boarded his ship, they took note of the guns kept by the crew for protection in a part of the country marked by drug trafficking activity, but they raised no concerns.

The crew were eager to begin the trip down the winding river to the remote village of Ahuas, deep within the Miskito jungle. Their goal was to begin salvaging giant hardwood logs that had been lost in the river, ship them back to the United States and use part of the proceeds to invest in small business ventures in the village that would put a group of disabled men back to work.

Instead, the crew found themselves in front of a judge, accused of smuggling firearms into the country.

Mayne said he refused an offer to pay $30,000 to make the charges disappear.

“This little backwater port saw another opportunity, and that was to file false charges against us,” he said.

They were confined to 12-by-12-foot concrete cells with no running water or toilets, sharing the space with a dozen other prisoners and countless mosquitoes and cockroaches.

After a few days, they cut a deal with a convicted murderer to pay $20 a night to share his small cabin, but they had no idea when or whether they would get a chance to challenge their incarceration.

The worst part, Mayne said, was “not knowing what was going to happen to us and the emotional roller coaster of having indications we were going to be released and then not being released.”

Back in the U.S., a campaign for their freedom was mounting.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, wrote Secretary of State John Kerry about the situation and also urged Vice President Joe Biden to put the Aqua Quest crew on his agenda during a recent meeting with Honduran officials on unrelated issues.

Pennsylvania Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick also took up the crew’s case, traveling to the Honduran prison last week to meet with local officials. Within a few days, a panel of judges voted unanimously to drop the charges, and the Aqua Quest was back at sea, heading home.

Recovering from the ordeal may take a long while, but Mayne says he might return to Honduras to revive the project.

He faults corrupt officials, not the Honduran people, for what happened, and he’s hopeful the government will “clean up” the mess before he makes a return trip.

“We’ll do it with a little more safeguards. We’d like to have assurances from the central government that nothing like this will happen again,” he said.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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