Two Florida teens who vanished while fishing together at sea last summer may have sent the message, “We’re f’d,” to friends on Snapchat as weather conditions turned bad.
A trove of 128 pages of social media posts, investigative reports, cell phone tower records, interview notes and FBI emails released this week by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission paint the picture of an idyllic day on the water turned tragedy for two Tequesta teenagers and everyone who loved them.
Documents filed by various investigators show that the boys, 14-year-old Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, woke up around 9 a.m. on the morning of July 24 at the home of Carly Black, Austin’s mother. Perry had stayed the night with Austin and Black drove them to the home of Richard Kuntz, Austin’s maternal grandfather, where the boat had been stored. The boys grabbed $100 that Kuntz had left for them on the counter, loaded the boat and headed out.
After a quick stop at the home of Diane Stephanos, Austin’s paternal grandmother, to pick up ice, protein bars, fishing poles and gas cans, they set out toward Jupiter Inlet’s Jib Club. They were $13 short for the fuel they needed, but no worries – they could simply pay the difference the next time they stopped in, clerk Jeffrey Krizka reported.
With a promise to make good on the debt, the boys again hit the water at around 11 a.m. At 11:24 and 11:25, Black and Blu Stephanos, Austin’s father, both received text messages from their son.
“What’s up I’m checking in I’m just out here fishing.”
Though the message is the final known communication between Austin and his parents, it may not have been the last the teenager sent that day. Multiple friends and classmates told investigators they received Instagram and Snapchat posts from Austin. One Snapchat posted under Austin’s “austinfishkille” username featured four fishing rods lined up with a view of the water and the words, “Peace out Jup.”
But another may yet prove an eerie clue that the boys knew they were in trouble. Several friends report receiving a Snapchat post with the words, “We’re f’d,” though it’s unclear just when the post was sent. A December letter from Snapchat responding to a subpoena filed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission points out that governmental entity subpoenas are “not sufficient legal process to compel production of non-content records, such as Snap logs.” Anything more than basic subscriber information would require a court order issued under the Stored Communications Act or a federal or state search warrant.
One missing persons report included in the released documents also listed a “Peace out Jupiter” post on Austin’s Instagram account and shows that several friends said the boys told them they were planning to fish “far off shore” for dolphin.
Cell phone records, however, suggest that the boys may have stuck relatively close to inshore waters, at least during the early hours of their excursion. Emails between the FBI’s Paul Bruno and David Magnuson reference records from AT&T showing cell tower hits from Austin’s iPhone offshore at 11:25 a.m., but back inshore at 12:02 p.m.
“That’s what the records reflect, but AT&T lists numerous caveats throughout their records as to the reliability of the GPS data, so it has to be viewed with an eye of caution,” Special Agent Magnuson wrote. “This hit was at 12:02:43, and the hit just prior to that was at 12:02:20. Check out the capture, within 23 seconds, the phone was a mile away from the 12:02:43 hit. I must say the accuracy (better than 330 meters) is interesting.”
At about 1:30 on the afternoon of the boys’ disappearance, a storm whipped through the Jupiter area from the west and headed east offshore. Winds hit 20-40 miles per hour and lasted for just 20 minutes. Unfortunately, that may have been just long enough to prove devastating for the boys and their families. Records show that Austin’s phone disconnected from the Internet at around 1:16 p.m. and there were no data entries recorded afterward.
No one has seen or heard from the boys since. But the March discovery of the boat, a 19-foot, 1978 Seacraft registered to Black, may yet provide clues as to the boys’ fate.
Photos snapped by the crew of the Norwegian freighter that recovered the boat about 100 miles off Bermuda’s coast were sent to the FFWCC and released earlier this week. Several show the boat’s battery and ignition in the off position, leading to speculation that the boys may have been the victims of foul play.
“We do know for sure that boat was disabled intentionally because the battery switch, which is very difficult to get to, was in the off position,” Guy Rubin, the attorney for Cohen’s family, told WPBF. “That can’t be maneuvered by the passage of time, the current, and other events. The key in the ignition was in the off position. If the storm came and capsized the boat, the battery switch and the key would not be in those positions.”
But Captain Jimmy Hill, a longtime maritime industry professional and founder of the Southeast US Boat Show, tells PEOPLE there are a multitude of potential reasons for the battery and ignition to have been turned off. Topping the list is mechanical failure.
“One of the first things I would do is shut the battery off and save whatever energy I have, especially if I’ve already tried a few things and the battery is getting low,” Hill explained. “One main reason is because the bilge pump works off that battery and it’s the only way to pump out water that the boat takes on unexpectedly. The radio operates on electricity, too. There may be other systems on a boat, depending upon how it’s wired, where that radio would be more valuable than anything else. So, the boys may have conscientiously shut off the battery to conserve electricity for that purpose.”
As for the ignition, “If the boat had any type of mechanical failure, it would have been shut off, otherwise the alarm on the engine would have been driving them crazy if they left it on. Those particular items, by themselves without any other information, are not particularly shocking.”
While personal effects including Austin’s iPhone, the subject of a dispute between the Cohen and Stephanos families, have been returned, FFWCC officials await the arrival of the boat, purchased just a month before the ill-fated trip. It’s expected to arrive at Florida’s Port Everglades on May 16 and undergo an investigation.
“We hope that this will lead into something good and that they will have at least some information or details about what happened,” said Captain Håvard Melvær, who was the first aboard the Norwegian ship to spot the boys’ boat. He adds that as the boat hung from a crane on the deck of the Edda Fjord, a bench beside it became something of a place of solace for his crewmembers. “It became a natural place to sit. It was treated with a lot of respect. I think most people were thinking about their loved ones and their own situations at home.”