Skip to main content

Hoax callers sentenced to prison

One of the false distress calls diverted rescuers from an actual emergency

One of the false distress calls diverted rescuers from an actual emergency

Two West Coast residents convicted of sending fake distress calls to the Coast Guard in separate incidents have been sentenced to federal prison.

Kurtis D. Thorsted of Salinas, Calif., was sentenced April 28 to two years in federal prison and ordered to pay $29,000 in restitution for a series of hoax calls he made in 2001 and ’02. The Coast Guard says the hoax calls diverted efforts from a real emergency involving a sinking vessel.

In a separate court case, James Baldwin, 31, of Aberdeen, Wash., was convicted March 8 and sentenced to a one-year prison term followed by three years of supervised release. Baldwin, who pleaded guilty to communicating a false distress message, also was ordered to pay $194,587 in restitution for the unnecessary search-and- rescue attempt that was launched as a result of his call.

The two convictions are a result of a crackdown in recent years by the Coast Guard, along with the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies, to reduce the number of hoax distress calls. The Coast Guard says it responds to roughly one false call daily.

False distress calls cost taxpayers about $4 million a year, according to the Coast Guard. A C-130 costs about $9,322 an hour to operate, an HH-60 helicopter about $7,855, and the average cutter about $1,500 for every 60 minutes under way. False distress calls also put rescuers unnecessarily at risk and can thwart actual rescues.

“The risks involved in responding to a hoax call not only include the cost of the response [from a limited budget], the unavailability of assets used for the search, the risk of accident and/or injury to the crews, but the added risk to the public,” says Wayne Spivack, a spokesman for the Coast Guard Auxiliary. “Given the increase in Homeland Security missions and the ever present threats, hoax calls put the rest of America, not just the boating public, in danger.”

Thorsted, whose age was unavailable, began a string of hoax calls in December 2001, when he radioed several over an eight-hour period, according to the Coast Guard. A motor lifeboat from Coast Guard station Monterey and a helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco responded and determined there was no vessel. Meanwhile, the hoax calls interrupted an actual distress call to Group San Francisco. That vessel eventually sank, but no one died, according to the Coast Guard.

With help from a team of technical experts from the FCC, the hoax calls were traced to Thorsted’s apartment in Salinas. Thorsted was interviewed by FCC agents and Salinas police officers. Thorsted admitted calling the Coast Guard but denied that the call was a hoax, according to the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Investigative Services also interviewed him. After a months-long investigation, CGIS agents arrested Thorsted in May 2002 for sending a false distress call and for making an unlicensed radio transmission.

While out on bail, Thorsted in November 2002 again used his radio to transmit a hoax call, according to the Coast Guard. CGIS agents arrested Thorsted at his apartment that day. At the time of his arrest, Thorsted was holding a hand-held VHF radio, according to the Coast Guard. Thorsted was sentenced by the Northern California U.S. Attorney’s office.

In the case involving Baldwin, Coast Guard Group Astoria, Ore., responded to a radio distress call Nov. 19, 2002. The caller claimed that he and his crew were abandoning a vessel taking on water at the entrance to Johns River in Washington. The Coast Guard dispatched an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat and a 23-foot utility boat. Rescuers searched the area during severe weather conditions for more than 15 hours before concluding the call was phony, according to the Coast Guard.

The maximum penalty for making hoax distress calls is five to 10 years in prison, a $5,000 civil fine, a $250,000 criminal fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the costs incurred responding to the false call.