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Hoax mayday will cost caller $347,000

He’s also facing prison time for triggering the 23-hour search as a tropical storm bore down on Florida

He’s also facing prison time for triggering the 23-hour search as a tropical storm bore down on Florida

An unemployed tow truck driver has pleaded guilty to making a hoax distress call that prosecutors say not only endangered Coast Guard air and sea rescuers but subjected them to a cruel kind of stress.

Robert J. Moran, 45, of Boynton Beach, Fla., pleaded guilty Aug. 21 to making a June 11 VHF distress call reporting nine people — four of them children — in the water off Boynton Beach. Coast Guard Station Miami took the call at 10:49 p.m. as Tropical Storm Alberto bore down on Florida’s west coast. The call triggered a massive Coast Guard response. The futile search for survivors was a desperate one for rescuers racing against the clock to beat the bad weather and find family members reported clinging to each other three miles north of Boynton’s inlet.

“These [rescuers] are all guys with families and women with families, and they were under incredible stress,” says asst. U.S. attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald. “You would have to be there to understand. They were acting on detailed and [apparently] reliable broadcasts, and trying to find these people.” The 23-hour search covered 1,000 square miles and involved a dozen boats and a half-dozen aircraft.

In U.S. District Court in Miami, Watts-Fitzgerald detailed how Coast Guard investigators tracked Moran down. A woman who knew Moran, and has friends in the Coast Guard, heard a television news broadcast of the hoax transmission and recognized Moran’s voice and Boston-area accent. She reported his name and address to the Coast Guard, which sent an investigator into Moran’s Boynton Beach neighborhood with a recording of the hoax transmission. The investigator played the recording to neighbors, who also identified the voice as Moran’s. The investigator then went to Moran’s house. He wasn’t home, but his mother was, and she also identified the voice.

In the hoax call, Moran told the Coast Guard watchstander he was on a hand-held VHF radio from a disabled 33-foot blue-and-white Grady-White named Blue Sheep. He said five adults and four children were aboard. One, his wife, had broken and gashed her leg. All were reported to be wearing life jackets as water began to wash over the stern.

He talked with the Coast Guard for an hour, reporting in detail the boat’s sinking and the nine circling up in the water and holding hands, per the watchstander’s instructions. The transmissions ended after he reported his radio had gotten wet.

Watts-Fitzgerald told the court that Moran’s mother informed the investigator that Moran owns a Grady-White, though a smaller model than the one in the hoax call, and is married to a woman with the same first name as the one reported to have a broken leg. Watts-Fitzgerald said an FBI voice print of Moran’s voice would have matched Moran’s voice to that on the recorded transmission.

Authorities arrested Moran June 27 at his home. His motive remains unclear. “Why do people do things they know are dumb?” asks his attorney, Bernard Fernandez.

Moran had been out of work, and that can lead to depression and impaired decision-making. “But you just can’t explain it away,” Fernandez says. “He definitely did it. He’s definitely sorry. He’s definitely remorseful.”

Sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 10. In return for the guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of 21 to 27 months in prison, but the judge can ignore that and give him up to five years. Regardless of the sentence, Moran will have to pay the Coast Guard $347,000 in restitution. That will pay for the cost of its search. It won’t, however, compensate rescuers for the emotional strain of looking for children who weren’t there or for the danger they faced.

“It was not a nice night to be out there,” says Watts-Fitzgerald.