Miami-Dade County

Miami lawyer seeks $5 million from Coast Guard for Colombian family in death at sea

The evening of Aug. 22, 2012, a vessel identified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a go-fast boat was spotted in international waters 32 miles northeast of Cayos Miskitos off the eastern Nicaraguan coast.

The Coast Guard, which routinely patrols the area, suspected that the vessel was transporting drugs because it was moving through an area normally used by drug traffickers.

Since the boat ignored orders to stop, a crew member aboard a pursuing Coast Guard helicopter fired warning shots. The Coast Guard also aimed some shots at the boat’s engines to disable them.

When the boat finally stopped, it was clear that the Coast Guard’s interdiction mission had gone awry.

One of the three crewmen on the boat was dying and a second was injured. Coast Guard officials said they did not find any drugs, possibly because the crew was seen throwing items into the water before the gunfire began.

Now, a Miami lawyer who represents the Colombian family of the dead crewman has filed a $5 million claim against the Coast Guard as compensation for the death at sea.

“The vessel operator failed to comply with a lawful order to heave-to on August 22, 2012,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo said in a statement issued Friday. “As a result, a Coast Guard helicopter employed warning shots and disabling fire to stop the vessel.

“The Coast Guard boarding team arrived on scene to discover one of the vessel's crew members deceased. The matter is under internal agency review, and the Coast Guard has a general policy of not commenting on the merits of individual claims,” her statement said.

While the case appears to be similar to dozens of other interdictions in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific in recent years, it departs from the norm in several respects.

The Coast Guard did not turn the surviving crewmen over to federal investigators and prosecutors in Miami as has happened in many other incidents. Dozens of such cases crowd the dockets in Miami federal court.

The usual Coast Guard procedure after an interdiction is to offload the seized drugs in front of television cameras at its Miami Beach base. At the same time, the suspects are turned over to investigators, and a few days or weeks later prosecutors file a case in Miami federal court.

According to the Coast Guard, it is the Department of Justice that determines where suspects in custody are transported. It can be Miami, Tampa or San Juan, Puerto Rico.

According to documents obtained from the Coast Guard by the Miami attorney, Louis A. Vucci, the events unfolded as the helicopter crew fired at the boat’s engines.

“Warning shots and disabling fire was conducted,” said a message from the scene to a Coast Guard command center in Miami. “Prior to doing so, 8-10 individual packages were observed jettisoned overboard.”

Coast Guard personnel who searched the area could not find the objects allegedly thrown into the water, the report said. The Coast Guard also dispatched a boat with crew members to board the disabled boat.

“Boarding team discovered personnel casualty aboard,” the message to Miami said.

The injured crewman was transferred to the Coast Guard cutter Thetis, where he was pronounced dead, the message said. He was identified as Milford McKeller de Alba, 24, a resident of San Andrés, a Colombian island off the Nicaraguan coast.

Coast Guard personnel also learned that the boat, which they initially thought was stateless, was registered as a Colombian vessel.

The two surviving crewmen of the Colombian boat and McKeller de Alba’s body were transported to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Vucci said. One of the survivors had been shot in the arm, Vucci said.

In September 2012, a month after the incident, the survivors — Rafael Britton, 27, and Anival Grinard Henry, 37 — were returned to Colombia.

Also in September 2012, the body was returned to San Andrés aboard a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft.

The family buried McKeller de Alba on Sept. 9 in San Andrés.