MIAMI – The former owners of a Florida Keys dive shop, whose boat was in such bad shape it capsized and sank, killing a tourist, pleaded guilty last week after being on the run for ten years in Europe, federal prosecutors said.
Christopher Jones, 57, and his wife, Alison Gracey, 54, who are both British citizens, pleaded guilty every Friday to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Aimee Rhoads, 36, of Washington State, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern reports. the Florida district in a statement Tuesday.
Attorneys for Mr. Jones and Ms. Gracey did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.
Juan Antonio Gonzalez, the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said the case illustrates that “however long it takes, we will make sure that criminals are held accountable for their crimes.”
The event that sparked a 10-year international manhunt took place on December 18, 2011, near Key Largo, Florida, where Mr. Jones and Ms. Gracey had operated the Key Largo Scuba Shack, a charter diving company, since June. 2010, prosecutors said.
Their main charter boat was a nearly 25-foot vessel called the M/V Get Wet. It departed that day for a diving trip with two crew members and six passengers on board, prosecutors said.
Among the passengers was Mrs. Rhoads, who had always wanted to dive and chose the first anniversary of her father’s death to book the excursion with her family. Her husband, Pat Rhoads, wrote in “Missing Aimee,” a blog dedicated to his wife.
During the boat’s first dive stop, “sea conditions went from calm to choppy,” prosecutors said in their statement. The boat’s operator, a 19-year-old Scuba Shack employee, noted that the ship’s bilge pump, which removes water that collects in the hull, was faulty, according to court documents.
When the passengers returned to the boat after their dive, the craft began to make water. After that, it “rolled heavily, capsized and quickly sank about 30 feet to the ocean floor,” prosecutors said.
As it descended, a 334-pound bench designed to seat six and hold a dozen scuba tanks that were detached from the deck. The fiberglass-clad wooden bench sprang free and hurtled toward the ocean’s surface.
The buoyancy force of the bench pressed Mrs. Rhoads’ leg against the boat’s windshield as the ship sank. She became trapped and drowned, prosecutors said.
A second passenger was trapped under the overturned sofa. After another dive charter boat with equipment arrived, the Get Wet operator used the equipment to dive to the sunken boat and free the man. He was resuscitated and survived, prosecutors said.
The operator went into hiding again and freed Ms Rhoads after about 15 minutes, but she was unable to be revived after being landed, prosecutors said.
After the boat was salvaged and inspected, Coast Guard investigators reported finding “serious deficiencies.” Among them: None of the ship’s bilge compartments – the spaces under the ship’s deck – were watertight and the wood in the bottom of the bank was rotten.
In addition, a bilge pump that had been disassembled had been incorrectly reassembled, prosecutors said.
A criminal investigation into the death of Ms. Rhoads pointed out that the owners knew the ship needed repair, even as they went ahead with it.
The investigation also found that in early 2011, Scuba Shack employees “repeatedly informed” the owners that the boat was “dangerously flooding,” prosecutors said in court documents. During one trip, with Ms. Gracey on board as divemaster, the boat nearly sank, prosecutors said.
Shortly after the death of Mrs. Rhoads, Mr. Jones and Ms. Gracey fled the country and evaded extradition for more than 10 years, prosecutors said. They were arrested on Sint Maarten in 2015, but left the island before they could be extradited, The Associated Press reports.
Last year, Mr. Jones and Ms. Gracey left France for Spain, where authorities arrested them after Interpol issued a so-called red message. The AP reported they had been taken into custody in the northern Basque town of Muskiz, near Bilbao, days after their case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Each faces up to eight years in prison if convicted in Key West, Florida, on Aug. 18.
After they were extradited to the United States in January to file federal charges, Mr Rhoads wrote in his blog that he was relieved and posted an image of the pair in custody.
“Now that they are here, they will finally face the federal charges stemming from Aimee’s death in December 2011,” he wrote on January 12.
“Justice may not change anything,” he added, “but we want and deserve it anyway.”