One man arrested, one dead off Cuba

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Stolen 35-foot Wellcraft may have been part of a scheme to smuggle Cubans

Stolen 35-foot Wellcraft may have been part of a scheme to smuggle Cubans

One man was in jail and another was believed to have died off Cuba in what authorities were investigating as a possible smuggling operation involving the theft of a 35-foot powerboat from the Florida Keys.

Noel Valle, 28, of Key West was being held in the Monroe County Jail on a charge of stealing a new Wellcraft from behind the home of a Key West marina owner, according to Monroe County sheriff’s police. The Coast Guard intercepted Valle May 8 as he fled Cuban waters.

The Cuban government alerted the Coast Guard that the Wellcraft was fleeing Cuba and said they had a man’s body, evidently run over by the boat as it sped away, according to sheriff’s police. The dead man, still unidentified, may have fallen out of the fleeing boat in rough seas as Cuban authorities pursued the vessel into international waters.

The U.S. State Department declined comment on what happened while the boat was in Cuban waters. Customs still was investigating.

William Murray had bought the Wellcraft just two months earlier. It is the first new boat he has owned in 25 years. Powered by triple 225-hp Evinrudes, the 35-foot center console’s top speed is around 58 mph, fast enough to outrun many patrol boats on flat water. But Murray says the seas that day were rough — 15 to 18 feet in the Florida Straits, where the Coast Guard intercepted Valle.

Murray, co-owner of Murray’s Marina in Key West, says the boat disappeared from behind his Key Haven home between 11 p.m. May 6 and 6:30 a.m. May 7. He says in the Keys stolen outboard boats usually are found adrift minus their engines the same day they go missing. When his boat didn’t turn up, Murray alerted the Coast Guard, and they recognized it when they stopped Valle.

“It had a lot of damage,” says Murray — $16,000 worth. The props and shafts were bent, and the bottom was deeply gouged, apparently either from running aground or beaching in Cuba on rock bottom. The operator also had pumped gasoline into the holding tank through a sewage pumpout opening on deck.

“They were really stupid,” Murray says.

Murray says his insurance adjuster told him this was the fourth boat in six months that he knew of that had been stolen in the Keys to smuggle people out of Cuba, which is less than 90 miles from Key West.

“Sometimes boats are stolen for the purpose of smuggling people from Cuba,” says Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

In April smugglers pulled a stolen boat full of refugees onto a tiny island next to the Keys’ Seven Mile Bridge as thousands of runners streamed across it in a road race. The smugglers tried to blend in with the runners, but the border patrol says it caught them.

Murray bought his Wellcraft to fish and cruise. He had planned his first cruise to the Bahamas in June, but that was postponed so the boat could be repaired. He still planned to cruise in July.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he says. He might never have seen his new boat again.