Migrant smuggler in Keys apparently gets away in stolen boat

Migrant smugglers who abandoned a large boat at the isolated Newfound Harbor Keys may have stolen a flats boat to make their getaway.

One suspect has been arrested in connection with the incident in which 27 Cuban refugees were dropped off at the Newfound Harbor Keys, on the oceanside off Big Pine Key. A search continues for at least one other smuggler, federal officials said Tuesday.

A three-engine, 35-foot center-console boat with a black hull was abandoned Friday morning at Newfound Harbor Keys, which cannot be reached by land. The vessel is being held at a federal facility in the Marathon area, said Elee Erice, a spokeswoman for the Office of Border Patrol, a division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The name of the listed owner of the boat was not available.

While authorities were dealing Friday with the refugees who came across from Cuba on that boat, the smugglers apparently slipped away and hid amid the mangroves.

Greg Dunning, who lives in Key Largo and keeps a fishing cabin on Cook Island in the Newfound Harbor Keys, went outside early Sunday morning to discover his 17-foot Stealth flats boat and its 115 horsepower engine were missing from his dock.

“That was not a fun way to start the day,” Dunning said Tuesday.

The flats boat later was found adrift about three miles into the Atlantic Ocean. It had not been seriously damaged. “It really was a muddy mess inside,” Dunning said. “And two Heinekens were missing from a cooler.”

Based on footprints found at the water’s edge near his dock, Dunning speculates the missing smugglers waited until boats from the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other agencies left the Newfound Harbor area, not far from the Little Palm Island resort.

Sometime Saturday night, they pushed his boat out to sea, started the engine and used it to reach a remote oceanside area on Big Pine Key.

“They probably left it near Long Beach Drive,” Dunning said. “Where they found the boat was about right if it had drifted from that area.”

One migrant-smuggling suspect was taken into custody on Big Pine Key, Erice said. Lower Keys residents said the man was arrested at the Winn-Dixie shopping plaza but that could not be confirmed.

All 27 refugees — 21 men, six women and a juvenile — were processed under the federal wet-foot, dry-foot policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay.

For more Keys news, go to KeysNet.com

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