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50 Migrants Discovered in Sailboat

Two skippers are arrested on suspicion of smuggling people after the Coast Guard raids the luxury vessel outside Los Angeles Harbor.

September 02, 2004|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

Smugglers crammed 50 undocumented immigrants into a 44-foot luxury sailboat built for eight passengers and attempted to sneak into the Port of Los Angeles in what authorities described as the harbor's largest maritime smuggling operation in a decade.

Acting on an anonymous tip, the Coast Guard converged on the boat Monday night, several days after the C'est La Vie had been rented from a local charter company. Coast Guard members boarded the boat 950 yards outside of Angels Gate, an entrance to Los Angeles Harbor.

There they found dozens of Mexican migrants, including a toddler and a pregnant woman, below the deck of the French-built Beneteau sailboat. Authorities said the immigrants came from throughout Mexico, but had boarded the boat in Ensenada after a short stay in Tijuana, a main staging point for smugglers of people.

Several migrants told investigators that they had paid $3,000 each for passage, and officials believe that the operation has been ferrying illegal immigrants over at least the last few weeks.

Conditions were cramped but not desperate during the 24-hour voyage, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Trevett. Passengers had bottled water and, according to federal investigators, many of them stayed on deck for much of the trip.

Two U.S. citizens, Gregory Ray LaBono and Vernon Eugene Siegel Jr., were skippering the boat, authorities allege. Both men were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of federal smuggling crimes.

The arrests come as federal authorities have been cracking down on human smuggling rings, which have become increasingly active across Southern California in recent years. Usually, immigrants are smuggled across the border over land by so-called coyotes who crowd them into safe houses. Often, the immigrants are shuttled to Los Angeles International Airport, where they board planes for the East Coast.

Maritime smuggling is considered rarer, and this case comes a month after federal officials had begun patrolling terminals at Los Angeles International Airport, looking for smuggling rings.

"With all the stepped-up immigration enforcement, they were basically trying to do an end-run around the San Diego border," Trevett said.

Coast Guard officials were concerned that others might try similar voyages without adequate skills or life preservers aboard.

Trevett said he suspected that the alleged smugglers had been operating since at least the middle of August, when local police were first tipped off.

Chris Mosier, owner of the boat charter company whose vessel was used in the alleged smuggling operation, said he rented vessels to LaBono four times over the summer.

"The only thing that was kind of strange about him, was that he didn't have a credit card -- he wanted to pay cash for everything," she said. "The last time he rented a boat, he spent a day cleaning it at the dock. When we got it back, it was spotless."

One man who lives in the marina said he noticed the C'est La Vie one night, two weeks ago.

"We had people running down the docks," said the boat owner, who identified himself as "Low Tide Larry" and didn't want to use his real name for fear of reprisal.

He said he was sitting on his boat when he noticed several people rushing past his porthole. "They were jumping off that Beneteau to another boat to get on the dock. It was almost like a cruise ship that was unloading."

Lew Ogan, a used boat parts salesman in the Cabrillo Marina, said residents had seen mysterious dockings at least four times over the last two months.

Each time, Latinos left the boat and ran to cars at the end of the dock, he said.

LaBono, who once sailed 40 days to Bora-Bora, allegedly told authorities that he had never smuggled people before.

Kice said LaBono owned a boat repair business and lived in Lomita. Siegel was a longtime Florida resident.

According to the federal affidavit filed in federal court Wednesday, he met an unidentified man in Ensenada last week who agreed to pay $250 for each person smuggled into Los Angeles.

Kice said investigators were trying to determine whether the two men acted alone. Neither speaks Spanish.

"Clearly they were only a part of the plot," Kice said. "Somebody made arrangements in Mexico and here in Los Angeles."

Coast Guard officials said they couldn't remember the last time such a luxurious craft had been used to smuggle people.

Two years ago, 10 naked, shivering Chinese men waded ashore at El Morro Beach in Orange County amid a group of partying teenagers, who reported them to police.

They had come from China aboard a fishing vessel.

In 2001, 23 immigrants were discovered in a cargo container in the hold of a Chinese ship berthed in the Port of Long Beach.

And in 2000, 48 migrants were found in cargo containers in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

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