Working on a fishing boat hundreds of miles from shore, Todd Schotanus was increasingly troubled. The captain, Bruce Mounier, seemed less and less rational, he thought, and there was nowhere to run.
First Mounier, a pistol ominously planted in his belt, cursed at his new crew members for not working hard enough, Schotanus said. Then, he recalled, Mounier showed off a photograph from an earlier excursion on his boat, the Magic Dragon: a crew member hogtied on the deck.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 11, 1995 Valley Edition Part A Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--A crew member chained to the side of a fishing boat was misidentified in a photo caption accompanying a story in Wednesday's Times about a lawsuit against the boat's captain. The man in the picture is Jason Garinger.
Finally, Schotanus and another crew member were denied rations and handcuffed to the deck for 30 hours after Mounier became obsessed with a missing candy bar and accused them of stealing it, according to a federal lawsuit seeking more than $20 million in damages.
"To be on a boat hundreds of miles from shore . . . you're trapped, that's your world. You're helpless," said Schotanus, a 26-year-old North Hollywood resident who joined the crew on a lark and is one of four former crew members now suing their former captain.
Two more hired hands--18-year-olds who similarly sought adventure and now are plaintiffs--allege that they were held captive in a small, overheated cabin and also denied food.
Their tale of terror on the high seas has prompted a federal investigation based on the rarely invoked, 160-year-old Cruelty to Seamen Statute. The target: Mounier, who told the Coast Guard he has had to get rough with unruly crews six other times.
No criminal charges have been filed so far, and Mounier's attorney says the case stems not from an abusive captain but a rebellious crew that refused to work and generally wasn't up to snuff. Mounier was fishing in the Hawaiian Islands and unavailable for comment.
Word of the incident has rippled up and down the coast in sailing ports.
"It was just so outrageous that I had to laugh," said Zeke Grader, executive director of a Sausalito-based fishermen's organization. "This is like something out of the last century, if not the century before that or Roman times. The only thing he didn't have them doing was rowing."
It all started in May, 1994, when Schotanus, an amateur sailor who had never been on an extended sea voyage, drove down to San Pedro to look for a job as a seaman. He had previously worked as an oil technician and handyman, and now wanted to try something different.
People at the docks directed him to Bruce Mounier and the 100-foot Magic Dragon.
Mounier, 54, is well-known in San Pedro--in a variety of ways. "You talk to 50 different people about him, you're going to get 50 different opinions," said one friend who works on the berth where the Magic Dragon used to dock and who asked not to be named.
A scuba diver and fisherman, Mounier will regale listeners with tales of his exploits, proudly displaying photographs of his biggest catches, including a sea turtle "as big as a Volkswagen," friends say.
Born in Florida, he has fished throughout the world, had photos of his catches published in National Geographic and broken new ground in fishing techniques, according to friends.
But since he moved to California in the early 1990s, Mounier has had problems with recalcitrant crews, said John Henderson, an Orlando resident and former fishing hand who stays in touch with the captain.
"I admit, every time I've heard (about an incident) I say, 'Damn, another one,' " said Henderson, 35, who maintained that Mounier has gotten along well with thousands of fishermen.
Late last year, Mounier reported another mutiny to the Coast Guard, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mary Andrues, who is handling the investigation into the incident involving Schotanus. In the other alleged mutiny, a shot was fired to quell the disturbance, said Andrues, who refused to elaborate.
In 1990 federal prosecutors charged Mounier with harboring and concealing illegal immigrants and killing a migratory bird, a humpback whale and a killer whale.
Assistant U.S. Atty. John Peyton, who handled the case in Hawaii, said Mounier pleaded guilty to lesser charges of concealing information about illegal immigrants and illegally transporting a dead killer whale. He was fined $5,000 and placed on three years probation, which ended two weeks before the Magic Dragon set sail with Schotanus aboard.
Schotanus said he was not aware of Mounier's reputation when he signed on. Nor were co-plaintiffs Jason Garinger, Amy Roumagoux and Ryan Hallas, all Oregon residents who responded to classified ads in a local paper for positions on the Magic Dragon. Garinger, 24, had worked on boats since he was a teen-ager, but Roumagoux and Hallas were inexperienced.
Most boats the size of Mounier's depend on hired hands who work from voyage to voyage. Often they are experienced fishermen like Garinger, but sometimes they are adventure-seeking novices such as Schotanus, Hallas and Roumagoux.