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Talkative hoaxer triggers $347,000 search

Authorities claim Florida man spent an hour on the radio giving details of a sinking that didn’t happen

Authorities claim Florida man spent an hour on the radio giving details of a sinking that didn’t happen

Working from an anonymous phone tip, authorities charged a 45-year-old Boynton Beach, Fla., man with making a hoax distress call that triggered a 23-hour, $347,000 search off South Florida.

Robert J. Moran, the owner of a 1988 Grady-White (and a VHF radio), was arrested June 27 at his home after a tipster called to say the voice on a tape of the call sounded like that of Moran. “We got an anonymous tip from someone who heard the audio clip on the news,” says Coast Guard public affairs officer Luis Diaz.

Investigators arrested the unemployed Moran two weeks later, after a federal grand jury indicted him on a charge of sending a false distress call. Moran was being held in early July at the Federal Detention Center in Miami on $100,000 bond, according to the U.S. marshal’s office in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Coast Guard rescuers, sheriff’s deputies and conservation officers searched for nine people in the water off Boynton Beach June 11 and 12, before deciding the distress call likely was a hoax. The Coast Guard in Miami took the call at 10:49 p.m. June 11, as Tropical Storm Alberto bore down on Florida’s west coast. The man on the radio — sounding calm and under control — reported that his 33-foot blue-and-white Grady-White was disabled three miles north of Boynton Beach Inlet in 600 feet of water. He said five adults and four children were aboard. One, he said, was his wife, who had broken and gashed her leg. All were reported to be wearing life jackets as water began to wash over the stern.

The man talked with the Coast Guard for an hour on what he said was a hand-held VHF. As the boat sank, the nine were reported circled up in the water and holding hands, per the watchstander’s instructions. The transmissions ended after the man reported his radio had gotten wet.

Rescuers never found anyone in the water, but they did find a 10-foot chunk of fiberglass — a boat’s stern section — near the Boynton inlet. The Coast Guard determined the debris wasn’t from a Grady-White.

Petty Officer James Judge says rescuers became suspicious when they received no calls from friends or neighbors reporting a boat overdue. “What makes this different from most search-and-rescue cases is even if there’s just one person missing, we’ll usually get 20 phone calls from concerned family or friends. We got no calls. Even a week later, no one had reported them missing.”

The caller was extremely calm, which Judge says isn’t always a tip-off to a hoax, but there was no background noise in the tape of the call — no sounds of panic or concern, which is unusual when nine people are involved. “There was no screaming or anything like that,” he says.

The caller gave his name as John Tobin; his wife’s as Carol. Palm Beach sheriff’s police traced the name to a couple who used to live in Coral Springs, Fla., but who now live in New Jersey. Officers confirmed that the couple weren’t associated with this boating trip and were, in fact, safe, according to the Coast Guard. They also investigated the boat name the caller hadgiven, Blue Sheep, and found no vessel registered under it.

Taxpayers footed the bill for the 23-hour search. A dozen boats and a half-dozen aircraft, including a C-130 search plane and HH-60 helicopter from Clearwater, Fla., scoured 1,000 square miles.

The Miami Coast Guard station has radio-direction-finding gear that uses triangulation from at least two radio towers to determine the origin of a call. However, both the RDF and communications system in Miami and at most Coast Guard stations are obsolete and don’t work very well, Judge says. “We only picked [the signal] up off one radio tower in Miami,” he says. A second tower received pieces of the transmission, but not enough to triangulate a position.

The Coast Guard believes its new but long-delayed Rescue 21 communications system eventually will give it the RDF capability to pinpoint the origin of VHF distress calls and enable it to respond faster to them and weed out hoaxes. “The Coast Guard is going to look a lot more technologically advanced in a few years,” says Petty Officer Judy Silverstein, the Rescue 21 spokesperson. She says the current system is 30 years old.

The $710 million Rescue 21 system was supposed to be finished this year, but the new date for bringing it online nationwide is 2011. The system is in place in Atlantic City, N.J., and along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and should be operational this year in St. Petersburg, Fla., and coastal Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, says Silverstein.

Rescue 21 already has proven its mettle. It is credited with saving the lives of 74-year-old angler George Strawn and two friends, who were left clinging to their 19-footer after it capsized in 59-degree weather last November off Ocean City, Md. The Coast Guard triangulated their location from three receiving towers after hearing their mayday.

Silverstein says Rescue 21’s RDF capability also enabled the Coast Guard in Barnegat, N.J., to find three men whose boat had been disabled while they were fishing in a tournament June 10. That same capability can be used to determine if a call is coming from land, evaluate the call, and, if it is judged a hoax, find the caller.

Judge says there were 14 other serious search-and-rescue calls in Florida the weekend of June 11, when the alleged hoax was perpetrated. “The shame of the matter is that if it turns out to have been a hoax, those aircraft and vessels that went out to search could have been diverted to something real,” he says.

The maximum penalty for a hoax call is five years imprisonment, a $5,000 civil fine, and either a $250,000 criminal fine or reimbursement of twice the search cost. In this case, that would amount to nearly $700,000.