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Date of Issue: December 28, 2006

Cuban migrants remain in United States - Boat carries 25 from Cuba to Longboat Key

cubans pic
cubans pic
Smuggled from Cuba to Longboat Key where they walked ashore, 25 Cubans talked to officials and awaited a trip from the town hall where they received food and dry clothing to Tampa for processing and release to American friends and family. Islander Photos: Courtesy Longboat Key Police Chief Al Hogle

The nature of the complaint was simply recorded as "suspicious circumstance," but the arrival last week of 25 Cuban migrants to Beer Can Island was no routine call.

Early Dec. 18, at about 5 a.m., Dennis Holden, of Brooksville, was driving along Gulf of Mexico Drive near North Shore Road in Longboat Key when he saw a large group of people standing in the roadway.

The shrimp delivery driver called the Longboat Key Police Department, which dispatched several officers.

The officers, according to a police report, found 25 people, three of them suffering symptoms of hypothermia and dehydration. They said they had traveled by boat from Cuba and were left on the northern tip of Longboat Key at Beer Can Island.

 "I've been here coming up on 26 years and I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd get such a call," said Longboat Key Deputy Police Chief Martin Sharkey.

Still, Sharkey said officers responded quickly, treating the incident as a rescue operation.

Longboat Key police called out Longboat Key Fire Rescue. Calls also quickly went out to the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with agents arriving within an hour. Officers from the Bradenton Beach Police Department and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office also responded.

"It really all worked well," Sharkey said. "It was very smooth."

By sunrise Dec. 18, Longboat Key Police Department served as a wait station for Emilia Zonaida Vazquez Sevilla, Jorge Luis Gonzalez Morejon, Yuniel Esteus Consepcion, William Perodin Gongova, Yusimi Carrillo Gomez, Carlos Ivan Suarez Rodriguez, Fernando Martinez Sanchez, Alfredo Gutierrez Prieto, Diosvany Gutierrrez Barredo, Estevan Torres Lieva, Ignasio Estevan Torres, Denet Imas Valdes, Jaidelys Hernandez Cruz, Sonia De La Pena Hernandez, Miladys Garcia Castro, Luis Alberto Diaz Rodriguez, Ismael Suarez Medina, Ditzan Vegas Diaz, Odalis Carmona Mena, Victor Alvarez Cano, Armando Otero Leon, Rafael Salgado Vaez, Freddy Cruz Garcia, Dennis Alan Duran Morales and an unnamed person.

Odalis Mena, 19, was the youngest on the trip and Estevan Lieva, 60, the oldest.

Cuban Dennis Morales, with the help of a translator and Longboat resident Luis Ortez, provided authorities the details of how he and the others came to Longboat Key. Each passenger apparently paid $2,000 - about 50,000 Cuban pesos - to be transported by a 30-foot boat from Cuba to the Miami area.

The passengers told authorities they crowded into the boat's cabin on the night of Dec. 15 and left Cuba for the United States, making their way through stormy weather and traveling without water, food or a bathroom. They arrived three days later, hungry and cold, at Beer Can Island instead of Miami at about 4:30 a.m. Dec. 18.

A Sarasota County Area Transit bus, flagged down by a police officer, took them to the police department, where they received blankets, clothing, water and food. Longboat Police Capt. Steve Roehl drove to a nearby Publix for sandwich fixings, fruit and beverages and the breakfast was spread out on a dining table.

"We started slapping sandwiches together," Sharkey said.

The Cubans gathered in a fenced area behind the police department while waiting for transportation to Tampa.

"We never closed the gate," Sharkey said. "That, I think, would have certainly added to their anxiety. We wanted them to know we were friends, here to help. They were joyous when they left, happy in their dream. They'd come to America."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard, with boats and aircraft, searched the Gulf waters for the smugglers and their boat and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials took over the investigation into how the Cubans came to America.

About mid-morning, the Cubans were taken to the border patrol office in Tampa, where they were interviewed by authorities and then released, most of them leaving with family and friends from the Miami area.

The United States and Cuba have an agreement in which Cubans interdicted at sea are returned to Cuba. Those who reach U.S. soil, however, can remain and apply for residency.

The Cubans who made posh Longboat Key their port of entry into America must take several steps to remain in the States. They must obtain work authorization and Social Security numbers. And, after a year, they can apply for permanent residency.

Officials said Beer Can Island might be the northernmost point on the Gulf coast that smugglers have brought Cuban migrants, but trips to the West Coast are not unheard of.

"I don't think we're going to be looking at droves and droves of people, but we're prepared," said Dave Bristow, MCSO spokesperson. "You make sure the people are cared for and you call the federal authorities."

"You prepare to handle any situation that comes up," said Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine. "And this is something that certainly bears watching. It was not a coincidence that they ended up there."

Two other trips from Cuba to Florida's West Coast occurred in the past two months-29 Cubans arrived in Naples Nov. 13 and 17 Cubans arrived on Sanibel Island Nov. 12.

Crewmembers from Coast Guard Station Fort Myers Beach detained two people suspected of smuggling the Nov. 13 arrivals - 12 men, four women and a child - from Cuba to Sanibel Island.

The alleged smugglers were found in a boat near the Caloosahatchee River. Their 33-foot boat contained several extra fuel tanks and both men had been previously arrested for human smuggling.

"Smuggling human beings into the United States can sometimes be dangerous, but it is always illegal," said Petty Officer 1st Class Tasha Tully, Coast Guard spokesperson.

"This doesn't surprise me really," said Longboat's Sharkey. "It's hot down there on the East Coast. So coming this way, that doesn't surprise me. I think now we'll see this for a while - until law enforcement assets are diverted to here and it gets hot."

The Coast Guard searched most of Dec. 18 for a boat that might have brought the Cubans to Longboat Key but failed to find a vessel, said spokesperson Sondra-Kay Kneen.

The search was called off late that afternoon, she said.

But the incident remains under investigation.

"Anytime we get an arrival of undocumented people who have been smuggled here, we try to look into the facts," said special agent and U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Zachary Mann.

He declined to say whether federal officials were following any leads in the incident or pursuing certain suspects.

The thought of smugglers in the waters near Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island thrilled beachgoers days after the incident.

"I'm both appalled and kind of wowed by this," said Longboat Key resident Charlene Smeltzer. "It's like modern-day pirates. I might know these people, but probably not."

People visiting Beer Can Island last week also reflected on freedom and country.

"I think sometimes I take this country and what it guarantees us for granted," said Norm Farrell, of Bradenton Beach. "That people would travel all that way, under such conditions, to come here says so much. I think that should make us proud and grateful, not hateful."