Posted on Mon, Aug. 26, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Links probed between 4 bodies and missing Cuban migrants

Federal and local authorities are investigating the link between the disappearance of a boat filled with at least 20 Cubans and four bodies found off the coast of Florida in recent days.

The Coast Guard ended its search Sunday evening for the 24-foot vessel, which reportedly left Cuba about midnight Aug. 18. carrying between 20 and 25 people.

No survivors have been found. The loss of life could rival the worst Cuban smuggling disaster in history -- the disappearance of 29 migrants last November.

But the Coast Guard, as well as the search-and-rescue humanitarian group Brothers to the Rescue, was not notified that the boat was missing until Thursday -- four days after the motorboat left the island.

The Coast Guard on Friday found three bodies about 20 miles east of Fort Pierce, and a body was found off of Cape Canaveral on Saturday.

Medical examiners in Brevard and Martin counties took possession of the decomposed remains.


Brothers to the Rescue co-founder Bill Schuss, who flew out in his Cessna on Saturday, said one of the bodies was identified by a Miami man whose wife and three daughters were aboard the boat.

''They didn't let him see the body, but he told them what clothes his daughter was wearing,'' said Schuss, who did not want to give out any information on the family. ``It appears that one of the bodies was his daughter's.''

Schuss said the man called the group Thursday, saying that his family had traveled from Havana to Bahía Honda in the western province of Pinar del Río to meet a boat bound for Florida with 20 to 25 people aboard. Brothers to the Rescue called the Coast Guard.

The family waited until Thursday to alert rescuers because they weren't sure if the boat had made it out of Cuban waters, Schuss said.

''Since they left from the western province, no one knew if they had left or had been intercepted by Cuban gunboats and taken to jail,'' Schuss said.

``Finally, by Thursday, they were worried.''

The Coast Guard searched about 25,000 square miles of water looking for the boat, logging 70 hours of flying time with no sign of the boat or any survivors.

The four-day delay in notifying rescuers hampered the Coast Guard's efforts, said Lt. Tony Russell, public affairs officer for the Seventh Coast Guard District.

''A delay in reporting like this makes the search effort much more difficult,'' he said Monday in a statement.

The weather last week was relatively calm -- but not free of peril -- across the Florida Straits, Schuss said.

''An overloaded boat can capsize with just four- or five-foot waves,'' he said. ``These people are not in Cuba, and they're not here. Obviously, something bad happened out there.''

Monday's Coast Guard statement described the vessel as a ''migrant smuggling boat'' that may have left Key West on Aug. 17 and left Cuba the next day.

A multiagency task force that investigates migrant deaths is still looking for leads, said Keith Roberts, an assistant chief with the U.S. Border Patrol.


The discovery of the bodies mobilized the Deceased Alien Response Team -- which includes the Border Patrol, Coast Guard, FBI and local agencies -- said Roberts, who would not comment on details of the investigation.

''We're pooling our resources, and looking to see if this was organized alien smuggling,'' Roberts said.

``But first and foremost we need to identify the remains.''

In November a boat carrying 29 Cubans, including 12 children, disappeared in the Florida Straits. A speedboat that might have been the smuggling vessel was found capsized southeast of Key West.

This report was supplemented with Herald wire services.