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Hoax arrest follows intensive investigation

A man has been charged in relation to one of more than eight false distress calls in northeast Florida

A man has been charged in relation to one of more than eight false distress calls in northeast Florida

A 23-year-old Florida man has been charged with making a false distress call, one of a rash of hoax maydays that vexed Coast Guard rescuers last summer and fall in northeast Florida.

A federal grand jury in Jacksonville indicted Zachary Ryan Werthem of Daytona Beach Nov. 29 on a charge of making a false mayday call Sept. 26. Werthem was arraigned in federal district court Dec. 12 and released on a $10,000 bond. A hearing to decide his fitness to stand trial was set for Jan. 23, says Amy Hanly of the U.S. attorney’s office in Tampa.

Coast Guard spokesman Bobby Nash says rescuers searched for 4-1/2 hours in the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic near Ponce de Leon Inlet Sept. 26 responding to a mayday they now believe was a hoax. He estimates the cost of the search at more than $75,000. A Coast Guard helicopter, 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, and 25-foot utility boat, as well as a Navy P-3 aircraft and 25-foot state wildlife boat, helped in the search.

The arrest capped an intensive investigation into a series of hoax calls in 2006 along Florida’s north Atlantic coast. “We had a string of eight [hoax] calls and some others that were not as pronounced as those were over a 12-month period,” says Senior Chief Petty Officer Newman Cantrell, officer-in-charge of the Coast Guard station at Ponce de Leon Inlet, between Daytona Beach and New SmyrnaBeach. “The calls were very specific: ‘I’m taking on water. I’ve got a boat beside me. They’re taking me on.’ … We would search for hours. There was nothing.”

Summer 2006 spawned a series of these false maydays, fall a few more. Cantrell says watchstanders began to notice a pattern to some of the calls. They didn’t sound as frantic as most mayday calls, and in at least one case when they played back a recording the voice sounded identical to an earlier hoax.

“We didn’t launch on that one,” Cantrell says. But with the others, “We kept responding. We searched diligently. We did the best we could, but nobody was there.”

Coast Guard Station Ponce de Leon Inlet covers the Intracoastal Waterway, and coastal and offshore waters from Matanzas Inlet near St. Augustine to north of Cape Canaveral — 70 miles of coastline where the seas can be rough. The hoax calls took the station’s boat crews to the edge of their area of operations. “It’s dangerous,” Cantrell says. “A couple of those calls came when the seas were extremely rough out there.” He says hoaxes also are a threat to boaters in real distress because they fatigue crews and divert boats that could be needed for an emergency.

Cantrell says the station responds to about 120 calls for rescue or assistance each year. It has two 47-foot Motor Lifeboats, a 25-foot Homeland Security boat, and an 18-foot flat-bottomed utility boat for shoal-water security details during space shuttle launches. The station is manned by 30 active-duty men and women, and 28 reservists.

Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Tampa, declined to speculate on whether more charges might be filed in connection with the spate of hoaxes. However, he says his office’s policy is to “vigorously prosecute” the charges.

“When you do something like this and cry wolf, it really is hurting the potential safety of other boaters because the Coast Guard gets distracted by hoaxes,” he says.