South Florida

Agency probing crash that killed Jose Fernandez walks back initial statements

Details of fatal boat crash involving Marlins' Jose Fernandez

FWC Officer Lorenzo Veloz gives details on the tragic boating accident that killed Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez at 24 on Sun., Sept. 25, 2016.
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FWC Officer Lorenzo Veloz gives details on the tragic boating accident that killed Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez at 24 on Sun., Sept. 25, 2016.

It became something of a mystery in the hours after a white, 32-foot SeaVee slammed into a jetty off South Beach early Sunday morning, killing Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez and two friends:

Who owned the boat?

“It was not Jose’s boat,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Lorenzo Veloz told reporters Sunday during a nationally televised press conference, in which the first details of the crash were released. “It does pertain to a friend of Jose’s who is very well connected with several Marlins players.”

Only, that wasn’t true.

On Monday, as the agency delved deeper into what Fernandez and friends were doing, where they were going and the evidence generated during the violent crash, a different spokesman confirmed that the “Kaught Looking,” the boat involved in the crash, did indeed belong to Fernandez. And that isn’t the only detail the agency is seeking to clarify.

Now, the FWC is also backing away from Veloz’s statements about the boat running “full speed” into the jetty and stressing that they’ve made no conclusions about whether alcohol was involved in the crash. Veloz said Sunday that the medical examiner’s office was conducting toxicology tests but noted that “alcohol, as of right now, was not involved.”

Authorities tow in the boat that Jose Fernandez and two friends were aboard when they were killed on Sun., Sept. 25, 2016.

“Without getting into semantics on this, I can say that Officer Veloz made some statements at that press conference that were speculative in nature as well as anecdotal in nature. Unfortunately, we’re unable to confirm some of what he said,” Officer Robert Klepper, a different spokesman, said Tuesday during an interview. “He misspoke. He made a mistake.”

In a subsequent, emailed statement, Klepper clarified that investigators found no evidence of alcohol or drugs during an initial inspection of the boat, which flipped and landed upside down on the north Government Cut jetty. He said there were no records to confirm statements made by Veloz that he had stopped the vessel in the past for safety inspections and seen Marlins players, including Fernandez, on board.

Veloz said that during those occasions, Fernandez, an avid fisher whose Instagram account is loaded with pictures and videos of him out on the water with friends from J’s Crew, a saltwater sport-fishing team, was never the boat captain.

Klepper, however, said the agency “has no record of any stops conducted on the vessel involved in the accident, nor any record of citations or warnings on any of the victims. Vessel stops are not normally documented unless a citation or warning is issued for a violation.” Klepper also stressed that the medical examiner’s office will determine whether any of the young men had alcohol in their system.

Unfortunately we’re unable to confirm some of what he said. He misspoke. He made a mistake.

Officer Robert Klepper

Still, Veloz’s confident statement that the boat was not Fernandez’s was a widely publicized — and detailed — gaffe, and one that remains mostly unexplained. Klepper declined to discuss how Veloz came to that conclusion.

Veloz referred questions Monday to Klepper and did not respond to a text message and voice message Tuesday. In addition to providing bad information, he was also panned for a few quips ahead of Sunday’s press conference that were unwittingly aired live on ESPN, although it’s not uncommon for law enforcement spokespersons to lighten the mood ahead of difficult press events.

Since Sunday’s news conference, more information has surfaced about what Fernandez was doing before the crash.

Following a Marlins game, Fernandez, who according to a source familiar with the death investigation kept his boat at the Cocoplum Yacht Club, put Kaught Looking in the water. Around 1 a.m., he docked his boat at American Social Bar & Kitchen on the Miami River.

When the 24-year-old pitcher arrived at the bar, Eduardo Rivero, 25, was already with him, according to Will Bernal, a friend of Rivero’s who was texting and calling him that night. While at the venue, Bernal said they picked up Emilio Macias, 27, a friend who lived at the Neo Vertika condo tower on-site but had never met Fernandez before.

The three appear to have spent a little more than an hour at the location, though it’s not known how much time they spent at American Social or whether they had anything to drink. Around 2:20 a.m., a man named Brandon Johnson snapped a photo of Fernandez with three other men, according to Miami Herald news partner WFOR CBS4. Fernandez wore a black, backward Nike hat and a black J’s Crew T-shirt with a tattered American flag.

The other three men smiled. Fernandez, standing in the middle, did not.

After that, Macias and Rivero got into his boat and they headed east, out of the Miami River and east of Miami Beach. It’s not known who was steering the boat, which according to public records was registered to Fernandez in May.

At some point, they turned north and then circled back south. Around 3:15 a.m., a U.S. Coast Guard vessel spotted Kaught Looking overturned on the north side of the north Government Cut jetty, with a massive gash on the left side of its hull. Two of the men were trapped beneath the boat. A third was in the water.

None of the three was wearing a life vest. All three died.

Exactly what happened Sunday morning, though, remains under investigation. Investigators asked prosecutors to draft a search warrant affidavit for the boat, and according to TMZ.com they have been asking questions at American Social, where employees have been under strict orders not to speak to the media. A source familiar with the investigation said investigators have also been to the Cocoplum Yacht Club, where a property manager declined to comment Tuesday.

Klepper said there is no timetable for the completion of the investigation, which he said could take “several weeks or more to complete.”

“FWC investigators are conducting a thorough and complete investigation of this tragedy,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

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