A Christmas Eve attempt by two Bahamian boat captains to smuggle five Chinese migrants into the U.S. was thwarted after their outboard motor died, federal agents said.
The technical difficulty left the seven occupants — including four Chinese women — on the 20-foot Mako fishing boat briefly stranded at 4 a.m. on Dec. 24 in the waters off Palm Beach County. They were stuck until a Coast Guard vessel arrived.
Coast Guard officers boarded the fishing boat to find a Bahamian man at the steering wheel, another Bahamian trying to work the engines, and five Chinese people in tow. None of the seven had proper documentation to enter the U.S., said a criminal complaint filed by a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.
The Chinese contingent numbered four adult women and one adult male, said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent John Solek, of U.S. Border Patrol. Two of them spoke English, but none of them would speak to agents about where they were headed.
"That's unknown," Solek said. "They were unwilling to cooperate."
The boat's occupants were taken to the U.S. Border Patrol station in Riviera Beach. The Chinese people were processed for "expedited removal" and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Solek said. They will be held in ICE custody until they are deported, he said.
Solek said there appeared to be no indication of human trafficking, a crime that refers to the exploitation of victims for financial gain through force, fraud or coercion.
He said it's "not uncommon" for Chinese migrants to try to sneak into the U.S. from the Bahamas, but that as a whole, the ratio of Chinese boat migrants compared to those from other countries like Brazil, Haiti and other Western Hemisphere nations is lower because of the farther distance and higher smuggling fee.
Elee Erice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said there were 65 known illegal maritime landings in South Florida between Oct. 1, 2011 and Aug. 31, 2012, the most recent dates for which figures were available. Those cases involved 412 migrants.
The two captains, Renwood Rolle and Joey Wendell-Stuart, were interviewed separately by HSI agents, the complaint said.
Rolle told agents he owned the boat and that he was to be paid $1,500 to transport the Chinese people to the Atlantic waters 40 miles off the Bahamas coast. There, they would be traded off to another boat. Rolle also claimed to be "clean" because he was not bringing the human cargo all the way to the U.S.
Wendell-Stuart told agents a cousin had provided them with a GPS device and the coordinates where they were to meet the other vessel, according to the complaint.
After waiting for the other boat, they decided to keep going toward the U.S. but their engine stopped running. Wendell-Stuart told agents he called his cousin by cell phone and was told that another boat would come to meet him in 20 minutes.
The Coast Guard got there first.
Rolle and Wendell-Stuart are each charged with one federal count of attempting to bring aliens to the United States for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain.