Before 14-year-old boys Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos headed out on a boat one Friday morning in July 2015, Perry’s mother, Pamela, kissed and hugged her son goodbye, expecting that the two friends were just embarking on a fishing day trip.
But an Atlantic storm, with winds that reached up to 40 mph that afternoon, is believed to have sunk their vessel, leaving no trace of the teen boaters. Despite a 16-day search that spanned four states, the boys were never seen again.
On Friday, Pamela Cohen filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Austin’s family, asserting that their negligence in allowing the boys to take out the boat despite the inclement weather forecast led to their deaths.
“If he was not permitted to travel into the ocean, against his mother’s explicit wishes, and despite promises she received from Defendants that they would honor her wishes, Perry would be alive today,” the lawsuit reads.
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Austin’s mother, Carly Black, who was among those named in the suit, declined to comment Friday, saying “this is not the appropriate time or occasion to do so,” according to a statement from her lawyer, George Harris.
Before going out on their final fishing trip on July 24, 2015, Perry and Austin were familiar with the water. They had both grown up in the West Palm Beach suburb of Tequesta, just north of Jupiter and near the Loxahatchee River, living the “saltwater life.”
“The reality is they were in diapers on the sandbar as kids and grew up snorkeling and fishing,” Perry’s stepfather, Nick Korniloff, told the Miami Herald at the time. “Perry tried baseball and skateboarding, but if you put a fishing rod in front of him — on the water is where he wants to be.”
The boys, who had been friends for three years, had each gone boating with their families and — with adults — had seen some stormy conditions. The weather forecast on the Friday they went missing called for thunderstorms and heavy rains.
According to Pamela Cohen’s lawsuit, she had let Perry sleep over at Austin’s house the night before so they could go fishing in the river the following day. She believed that neither of the boys would be allowed to take a vessel into the ocean without an adult on board, the lawsuit said.
But, according to the suit, Austin’s grandfather Richard Kuntz knew that the boys planned to go deep-sea fishing and left them $100 to buy fuel for his white single-engine vessel, which did not have a radio, GPS, emergency beacon or other communications equipment beyond a stereo for entertainment. The boys also told Austin’s grandmother Diane Stephanos they intended to fish for dolphin.
The teens sailed from the Jib Yacht Club Marina and through the Jupiter Inlet to the ocean around 11 a.m. that Friday. The last communication from the boys was a text from Austin just before noon, telling his mother that they were safe, before the rough storm is believed to have capsized their boat.
The boys were reported missing later that afternoon, and their boat was found capsized two days later off the coast of Daytona Beach, though it slipped away before Coast Guard officers could recover it at the time.
Family members and friends searched the beaches around where the boys disappeared for clues. The Coast Guard trawled almost 31,000 square nautical miles as far north as Charleston, South Carolina. Nearly 20 personal aircraft also joined the search for the two young friends. But after 16 days, the families announced they were suspending the search.
“Today, our hope becomes our prayer — that one day Perry and Austin will be returned to us. We thank everyone for their dedicated efforts and support,” the families said in a joint statement ending the search.
But in the years after the boys disappeared, the Cohens began to question what had happened before and during Perry’s last trip and how Austin’s family had responded, according to a statement released by the family’s lawyers.
Austin’s family did not contact Pamela Cohen until 4 p.m. that Friday, hours after they first became concerned for the boys, the statement said. When the boys’ boat and an iPhone were finally recovered 100 miles off Bermuda last year, Austin’s parents also refused to consent to a law enforcement search of the device, the statement added.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report made public last month concluded that the accident could have been avoided and an “egregious lapse in judgment and failure to exercise due care” led to the boys’ disappearance and likely deaths. But though investigators said there was probable cause to charge at least one of Austin’s parents with child neglect, the state attorney declined to press charges.
Before Pamela Cohen filed suit, Carly Black tried to block the litigation in federal court. A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the Cohens could proceed.
“Responsible parents would have checked the weather before letting the kids go out. Responsible parents would have respected the directions and trust given to them by the parents of a child in their custody,” Perry’s family said in a statement. “Responsible parents have nothing to hide and are fully cooperative and transparent so other grieving parents are not wondering and waiting for questions to be answered.”