On March 30, a Big Pine Key couple set off in a sailboat moored in a Lower Keys harbor because they said they thought it was abandoned.
But once they realized they had stolen the boat, they decided to keep going and take a “honeymoon” before returning it to the Keys, according to federal court documents.
Cuban police put an end to those plans when they arrested the couple, Aaron William Burmeister, 46, and Ashley Ann McNeil, 32, two days later near the resort town of Varadero on Cuba’s northern coast.
Cuban authorities returned Burmeister and McNeil to the United States last week, according to Coast Guard Investigative Services Special Agent Jacob Kyer.
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Kyer met them at Miami International Airport and arrested them on one count each of transporting a stolen vessel in interstate or foreign commerce.
Both admitted to taking the 40-foot catamaran from Newfound Harbor near the southern point of Little Torch Key on March 30, after searching for days for an abandoned vessel in which they could sail off, according to Kyer’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court Sept. 22.
McNeil said they scoped out the vessel, named Kaisosi, and paddled out to it on their kayaks. They pulled anchor and set sail. Both Burmeister and McNeil said they only realized they likely stole the sailboat when they were well underway on the high seas, Kyer wrote in his report.
They fueled the Kaisosi once they arrived in Cuba. McNeil said they planned to eventually return the vessel “to avoid any trouble,” but not before “taking a honeymoon,” she told Kyer, according to his report.
However, Burmeister told agents he and McNeil quit their jobs in Big Pine Key and “planned to possibly never return to the United States,” Kyer wrote in his report. Big Pine Key was hit hard by Hurricane Irma last September.
The original destination was the Bahamas, “however, the prevailing weather conditions forced them in a southerly direction toward Cuba,” according to the complaint.
The couple’s journey ended not long after they arrived in Cuba. They fueled up at a marina in Varadero on March 31, but the dockmaster there turned them away “as it was not an official point of entry,” according to Kyer’s report.
Cuban authorities seized the vessel and arrested the couple the next day because the Kaisosi was reported stolen.
The Cuban government has been in talks to return the boat to its owner and McNeil and Burmeister to the United States since April 1, Kyer wrote in his report.
How the Cuban government discovered that the Kaisosi was stolen is a testament to the power of social media and the communications acumen of the regional sailing community.
The vessel’s owner, Hector Cisneros, noticed the boat was not in its anchorage on March 30 while he was driving along U.S. 1. He reported it stolen to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
After arranging a private plane to conduct an aerial search of the area, Cisneros posted several messages on Facebook asking to be on the lookout for his boat, which he bought for $350,000 in August 2017.
After the social media posts, Cisneros was contacted by a sailing enthusiasts group called Seven Seas Cruising Association, whose members spread the word about the boat via high-frequency radio throughout the Caribbean.
“If it wasn’t for social media and the boating community in general, who knows what could have happened,” Cisneros said in an April 3 interview with the Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com.